Great Prison Escapes: The History of Escaping from Lawful Custody

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John Reginald Killick was being held on remand at Silverwater gaol in March 1999. 

He was awaiting sentencing after having pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, as well as one of shooting at an off-duty police officer.

On the morning of 25 March that year, Killick’s partner of three years, Lucy Dudko arrived at the office of Helicopters Pty Ltd at Bankstown Airport to take a Harbour Bridge Track tour, which included flying by the Olympic Stadium.

Timothy Joyce was the pilot of the Bell 47 helicopter that Ms Dudko hired. 

As the chopper got closer to the stadium, she requested that Mr Joyce fly towards Silverwater gaol. 

The pilot refused, so Dudko pulled a pistol out of her purse, put it to his head and said, “This is a hijack.”

The armed passenger ordered Joyce to land on an oval in the maximum security correctional facility. Mr Killick then boarded the helicopter. Dudko handed the inmate an automatic weapon she’d just assembled, which he pointed at prison guards as they started firing in the direction of the chopper.

Using a street directory, Ms Dudko directed the pilot towards Macquarie University and told him to land on a playing field. After tying Mr Joyce up, Dudko and Killick then jumped into the car of a stranger, Mr Peter Bax, and forced him to drive them to North Sydney.

The pair were on the run from police for 45 days, and were eventually arrested in a cabin at the Bass Hill Tourist Park. Officers found two pistols in their room, one was of the Derringer style and the other was in the style of a Luger.

This is just one of many Australian prison escapes over the past few decades. 

In that regard, numerous prison inmates have hatched and executed ingenious plans to find their way to freedom, from chiselling away metal posts at Long Bay Correctional centre in 1977, to constructing an underground tunnel at the now defunct Parramatta prison in 1979 and using a disguise including a fake moustache to get out of Goulburn prison in 1996.

Some have even found ‘life on the run’ too hard, calling authorities to re-arrest them.

Still, the compulsion to escape from detention and all that comes with it can be overwhelming, and many an inmate has spent his or her time ruminating about the prospect of escape.

A human instinct

Humans are animals, and like all animals we have a natural inclination to escape forced confinement. 

And history is littered with examples of individuals and indeed groups implementing carefully hatched plans to secure their freedom.

Ancient escapes

One of the first reported escapes appears to be when Byzantium (known initially as Constantinople, now known as Istanbul) had been betrayed to Athens in 408 B.C., General Coiratadas having been captured and was disembarking, sneaked away and escaped to Decelea (an ancient village in Attica, serving as a trade route to Athens and controlled by the Spartans).

 Another prisoner of war, General Theognis, 5 years earlier had also escaped. 

The Shawshank Redemption, Papillion, the Fugitive and the Count of Monte Cristo are movies of innocent prisoners who escaped lawful custody, watched by tens of millions of people.

Less than a handful of people, though, would know of Orlando Boquete of Florida, USA, convicted, sentenced to 50 years in gaol, escaped after 2 years; and with the assistance of the Innocence Project, proved he was not guilty of the crime and exonerated in 2006.

625 prisoners world-wide, as of 2021, have been exonerated by the Innocence Project, which is a free Legal Organisation, committed to the exoneration of wrongly convicted inmates.

University of Law, Professor Samuel Gross, says it’s 850 since the late 1980s.

The Innocence Project say as of 2020, in the United States alone, there were 375 exonerated by DNA testing.

Of course, many guilty prisoners attempt and succeed in escaping from lawful custody too.

Some, like those freed by organisations like the Innocence Project, also see their freedom as having been an escape from custody.

Malcolm Alexander served 38 years before his escape by virtue of the Innocence Project, similar to George Allen who served 30 years, Randolph Arledge, only 29 years and so it goes on. Many had smiles when officially declared innocent of the crime which took away most of their youth and a vast percentage of their adult life. Many also shed tears of regret from being denied their families for so long.

Not a life well lived.

Mental illness caused by prolonged forced incarceration

The Psychiatric and Psychological Community express grave fears for such a scenario. Schizophrenia, depression, mania and post traumatic stress disorder are amongst serious mental illnesses suffered by inmates after a very long time incarcerated.

These conditions can be compounded if the person was acquitted, leading to suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide), including actual suicide.

This is very similar to what occurs in prisoners of war, who are liberated.

Families are also affected

According to prominent Psychiatric and Psychological Associations, those returning to the family home after many years away, but with the burden of it needn’t, or shouldn’t have happened, the illness appears to manifest itself in profound sadness from the perspective of the family as a unit.

The NSW Mental Health Association, Mental Health Australia, Beyond Blue, Australian Association for Infant Mental Health and Children of Parents with a Mental Illness are just a few of the organisations able to assist in the transition of prison inmates into the general community.

A sad indictment on society

The sad fact is of the destruction of families who lose a family member initially, then become ill as a collective after the wrong is corrected, because of the legacy of that loss.

It says a lot about the level of commitment to right a wrong at law, when it can take decades to put right, by the very ones who invariably caused it in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, the fact is those who caused it in the first place, are those who should be protecting society.

Historical escapes

1244 saw Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, a boy when imprisoned in the Tower of London to ensure his father’s loyalty to 

King John, attempt to escape using a rope made of bedsheets.

Unfortunately, due to his weight, the makeshift rope broke, and he fell to his death.

1881 was the year Billy the Kid (William H Bonney) escaped from Lawful Custody, to continue his profession as a gunslinger in the old Wild West. Despite being good, someone was quicker on the draw and he died at 21 years old, at the hands of Sheriff, Pat Garrett.

1934 was the year which saw the claim by police of their Escape-Proof jail, the butt of many jokes, when American Gangster, John Dillinger absconded.

Australian Bushranger, Edward (Ned) Kelly, executed by Hanging at the Old Melbourne Gaol (now a museum) in 1880, was jokingly referred to, as having escaped from lawful custody, over a century later.

Mr Kelly’s remains were moved to mass graves at Pentridge Prison in the 1920s to 1930s post his hanging when he was 25 years old, at the Old Melbourne Gaol; by the hangman, Elijah Upjohn.

Heritage Victoria, in 2007, reported that they could not locate Mr Kelly’s remains, however, in 2011, they were found in another part of the prison, well after the prison was closed down.

The Bushranger, Ned Kelly, escaped being charged with Escape Lawful Custody.

Between 1842 and 1967, another 10 inmates found freedom, but that was the result of being executed.

During this time, another 176 prisoners were executed in other prisons throughout Victoria.

Ronald Ryan, the last person hanged at Pentridge Prison, who had earlier escaped Lawful Custody in a Prison Break-Out with a fellow prisoner, Peter John Walker, was convicted of killing a Warder, George Hodson, in the ensuing Shootout.

The Bushranger was laid to rest alongside Mr Ryan within the prison, which now forms part of a Housing Estate.

When the prison was sold to developers, both Mr Kelly and Mr Ryan’s remains were presented to their families for burying as Free Men.

Ned was alleged to have said at his execution, such is life.

High flying fugitive

Those in the High-Flying Corporate World Escape too: Carlos Ghosn, former head of multinational companies, Nissan and Renault, whilst on Bail in Japan and monitored 24/7, made good his escape from legal custody in December 2019.

In keeping with the inventive measures of his escapee predecessors, of digging tunnels, cutting cell bars, with hacksaw blades, lowering themselves with modified ropes made from bedsheets, prison walls breached by explosives, shoot-outs and airlifted by Helicopter, Mr Ghosn proved their equal.

Disguised, Mr Ghosn travelled to a hotel near Osaka airport, where he took the place of a Musical Instrument, hidden inside a crate and was flown out of Japan.

This escape from lawful custody, similar to the movies previously mentioned, has been recorded in a Doco-Film, called The Last Flight.

Great war-time escape

Australia in 1944 was the scene of one of the world’s largest escapes from Legal Custody, when in excess of 1,000 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) broke out of Cowra, New South Wales Prisoner of War Compound.

In excess of 200 were shot to death, with 31 committing suicide, 12 burned to death and over 100 were wounded.

4 Australian Soldiers were killed during the Break-Out.

Stalag Luft III was a Prisoner of War Camp, located in German-Occupied Poland, to imprison captured Allied Airmen, who had been shot down by Anti-Aircraft Guns, or German Messerschmitt Aircraft.

The subject of a famous movie, The Great Escape, in 1944, 76 airmen escaped through one of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry.

 3 succeeded in returning to England, 73 were recaptured, with 23 reinterred; and 50 others, including 4 Australian Airmen, on the orders of Adolf Hitler, executed by the Gestapo.

The Even Earlier Great Escape from Holzminden Prisoner of War Camp, in Hanover Germany:

This was a prison which held over 500 officers of the allied forces and 150 orderlies, where part of an officer’s military code whenever captured during war, is to attempt to escape.

This happened during the first world war in 1918, when 29 men managed to escape through a tunnel, they had dug over 8 months, with only cutlery and cereal bowls.

100 prisoners of war attempted to escape, but only 29 succeeded, as the tunnel caved in. 19 were recaptured, but 10 made it home to Britain via Holland.

It appeared that this great escape became the template for the second world war Stalag Luft III other great escape: a testament to humankind’s resilience!

Australian Associated Press

The Guardian newspaper on 20th October 2022 reported on the NSW prison officer on trial for killing an inmate, during an attempted escape.

New South Wales Office of Public Prosecutions Barrister, Ken McKay, said the officer who shot prison inmate, Dwayne Johnstone, a Wiradjuri Aboriginal man, during a hospital visit, intended to cause serious injury as he was shackled when he was shot and killed by the prison officer.

The jury were unable to reach a verdict.

The offence of escaping from lawful custody in New South Wales

Escaping from lawful custody is an offence under section 310D of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW), which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

To establish the offence, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that:

  • You were an inmate in lawful custody, and
  • You escaped from lawful custody, or you attempted to escape from lawful custody, or you failed to return to lawful custody after the expiry of your temporary release for the purposes of the offence.

 An ‘inmate’ includes:

  • A person detained in a correctional centre whether on remand, sentenced or otherwise lawfully detained there, and
  • A detainee held in an immigration detention centre.

It does not include:

  1. A person in lawful custody for the purpose of serving an intensive correction order, or
  2. A detainee in a youth detention centre.

Section 57 of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW) provides that any sentence for the offence must be served ‘cumulatively’, which means after the end of any existing period of imprisonment.

Defences to the charge include:

  1. Duress
  2. Necessity, and
  3. Self-defence, which includes the defence of another.
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David McCulloch

David McCulloch

David McCulloch has spent years assisting Australian prison inmates and immigration detainees, collaborated with management and academics to establish a Nordic-style recidivism reduction program, written extensively on the history of criminal law and the inequities that plague the criminal justice system and been involved in law-related podcasts and television programs.

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