11 Nov 2014

Controls in place after escape - minister

10:40 am on 11 November 2014

Steps have been taken to increase security for prisoners on temporary release in the wake of the flight of a convicted killer and sex offender, Police Minister Michael Woodhouse says.

Phillip John Smith

Phillip John Smith Photo: Police

Phillip John Smith fled the country on Thursday, hours after leaving Spring Hill prison on a 72-hour temporary release. The Department of Corrections did not know he was missing until Saturday.

The 40-year-old flew direct from Auckland to Santiago on a passport obtained in his birth name of Phillip John Traynor. Police in Chile say he spent some hours in transit before flying on to Brazil.

Mr Woodhouse told Morning Report there will be an investigation into how Smith was able to get a passport, which will also focus on any help Smith might have got from outside jail.

Michael Woodhouse

Michael Woodhouse Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

He would not pre-judge the full inquiry, he said, but some steps were already being taken regarding prisoners on temporary release.

"An active review of that category of offender and the controls that are being put in place for the temporary release - but I am also aware there is a restriction on temporary release.

"So there are certainly things that are happening to control this right now but it's not possible for me to say whether that's going to lead to a permanent change."

The Department of Corrections admits mistakes have been made, but denies it has failed in its handling of the criminal.

Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga has ordered an urgent review.

"I would definitely say mistakes have been made here. We've got to work out what those mistakes are, what we can do to improve our ability to respond to these errors, and how we can fix it."

Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga

Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga has ordered a review over mistakes made in the case. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Labour's corrections spokesperson Jacinda Ardern said the department was abdicating responsibility.

"It's incomprehensible for Corrections to claim it hasn't failed ... a known high risk offender has managed to not only abscond from prison, but to board a plane and has a two day head start on even being tracked down."

Jacinda Ardern.

Jacinda Ardern. Photo: LABOUR PARTY

It was "totally unacceptable" and "hard to comprehend" how it could happen, she said.

New Zealand First's Mahesh Bindra said Smith should never have been let out of prison in the first place.

"The release conditions were far too lax. Corrections actually allowed the prisoner to manipulate them and off he has gone ... which is a danger internationally now and ... a huge embarrassment to us as a country."

Ms Ardern said fault lies with more than just Corrections and it appears to be a failure that no checks were carried out against the prisoner's alias when he applied for a passport.

"We stop people who don't pay their fines at the border and yet someone who is still a prisoner has not been stopped under an alias that was known."

Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne said officials would investigate how Smith was able to apply to renew his passport from prison and why no flags were raised.

"There should be some way presumably of tagging the record so that when Traynor pops up seeking a passport renewal we know he's actually now going under the name of Smith.

"It's pretty clear that information needs to be more readily available in situations like this so we don't get repetitions."

Internal Affairs says passport applications are checked for court orders before being issued.

The department said there was no record of his incarceration under his legal name of Traynor as he was imprisoned under an alias. There were no court orders against Smith under his legal name of Traynor when he was convicted, so no grounds for the Department to reject his passport application, it said in a statement.

Corrections says Smith's completed passport was not sent to the Spring Hill Prison where he was incarcerated.

Police say Smith is now on an Interpol watch list which means it will be more difficult for him to leave Chile.

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