Prison Escapes: What Does the Law Say?

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Prison escape at night

Have you ever wondered what the law was on prison escapes and how often they actually occur?

Escaping from prison has a whole Part, comprising six section of the NSW Crimes Act 1900 devoted to it.

Escapes are not as rare as you think, and they are not confined to the movies – around twenty inmates escape from NSW prisons each year.

What are the penalties for escaping, and related crimes?

Escaping comes with a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment which is added onto the end of an inmate’s sentence.

Ten years is also the maximum sentence for taking part in the construction of a tunnel that could reasonably be used in allowing inmates to escape.

Knowingly harbouring, maintaining or employing an escaped inmate carries a maximum penalty of three years.

And aiding or facilitating an escape has a maximum penalty of seven years.

Courts are supposed to take escaping very seriously, as it undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system.

But the situations whereby inmates escape vary considerably, and actual sentences differ accordingly.

For example, the situation where an inmate escapes to attend a funeral and returns may be treated much less seriously than a convicted murderer escaping and remaining at-large for several weeks.

Committing an offence after escaping from prison is classified as an aggravating factor, which means that a harsher penalty may be issued.

But despite the penalties attached, many are undeterred and have often come up with ingenious ways to escape, with varying degrees of success.

Escape plans range from the wildly elaborate, such as taking over a helicopter at Silverwater prison, to sewing prison guard uniforms and using explosives to blast out of prison, to the astonishingly simple: wearing a disguise and strolling out from the visitors area.

But one of the most extraordinary cases involves one of the killers of Anita Cobby, whose name has once again entered the spotlight due to the Memorial Service that occurred in her remembrance on 2 February.

One of her killers was part of a group of seven prisoners who engineered an elaborate escape plan and almost succeeded back in 1979, seven years before Cobby’s tragic murder.

The group was comprised of convicted murderers and sex offenders.

The men worked in ‘shifts’ digging their way down a hole hidden in a wardrobe and through the soft sandstone walls of Parramatta gaol.

They used knives, forks, screwdrivers and eventually a shovel to chisel a tunnel out of the prison and into the nearby linen company.

The hole was finally dug and the day for escape had come – and it was nearly successful until inmate Michael Murphy, who would go on to murder Anita Cobby, made one short telephone call.

He called his grandmother and told her that he would be out soon. Unfortunately for Murphy, she then called the prison back, repeated the good news and asked when her grandson would be released.

This of course raised alarm bells and the tunnel was discovered the morning of the intended escape, although previous searches had not uncovered the hole.

Sixteen years later, the mastermind Lanigan, convicted of murder, escaped from Long Bay Farm and has never been heard of since.

Murphy escaped in 1986 from Silverwater prison but his freedom only lasted a year, when he was once again behind bars for his part in the Anita Cobby murder.

And while security in prisons is always increasing, those desperate to get out will continue to lay awake at night thinking of ways to escape.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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