22 Jan 2009

Violent escaped inmate classed as low risk

10:52 pm on 22 January 2009

The Corrections Department is defending its decision to classify an escaped prisoner as a low security risk, despite his history of violent offending.

Arai Whakaari Hema, 30, disappeared on Wednesday from a group of inmates working on maintenance in the grounds of Auckland Prison at Paremoremo.

Police say Hema is considered dangerous and should not be approached.

In the past week, six inmates have managed to escape in three separate incidents. As well as the Auckland escape, two inmates broke out of a police van in Palmerston North, while three prisoners escaped from an escort vehicle in Waikato.

In 1999, Hema was jailed for 11 years for trying to rape a 16-year-old girl in Napier and the attempted murder of an elderly neighbour who came to her aid. Bruce Butler, 76, needed more than 400 stitches in his head for knife wounds.

In 2004, another six years was added to Hema's sentence for his attack on three Hawke's Bay prison officers.

The Crown requested preventive detention at the time, saying Hema was a smouldering keg of powder waiting to blow, but the request was denied.

On Thursday, the Correction Department's northern regional assistant manager said a prisoner's security classification is not permanently based on the crime.

Jeanette Burns said Hema's behaviour had improved during his 10 years in custody and he had demonstrated an increased motivation to change.

As a result, he was assessed as being able to be safely managed in a minimum security environment.

Ms Burns says Hema's security classification will be re-assessed when he is returned to custody and his escape will influence that decision.

But Barry McBride, the father of the girl who was attacked, said he could not fathom how Hema is classed as a low risk.

Mr McBride says because Hema has not yet come up for a parole hearing the family has not had the chance to make their feelings known.

Answers sought from minister

The Labour Party on Thursday called on Corrections Minister Judtith Collins to explain how six prisoners managed to escape in a week.

Law and order spokesperson Clayton Cosgrove said when National was in Opposition in 2007 it described two escapes in five days as "a worry."

Mr Cosgrove said Ms Collins needs to tell New Zealand communities what action she will take to make them safe.