National’s justice spokesman reviews a memoir by New Zealand’s most prolific prison escapee

I have some admiration for Arthur Taylor and his memoir. His new book Prison Break is well researched and written. I presume much credit for that goes to his ghostwriter Kelly Dennett, but probably also Mr Taylor, a very smart man. You get a clear sense of a man of singular fighting spirit, tenacious to the end. He even has a touch of Churchill in the way he never gives in and never yields, whether it’s a police chase, or a courtroom argument. But overall I found his book annoying and depressing.

The guts of it is about four decades of breaking out of and then being put back in to correctional institutions. Initially it’s escaping from youth facilities, but then jails and also the odd corrections bus and van (whether moving or stationary), mental health centre (such as that orange bricked Carrington in Pt Chev) and then even from the High Court (in the middle of one of his many trials). Over and over we see the same pattern. A simple but clever breakout, generally pre-planned and involving some metal implement like a hacksaw or knife that he works away with at some bars and a window. Sometimes he escapes so he can see family, often it’s just because he can. When out, he invariably steals cars, heads north, and is caught either within a day or two, or every so often months later, after hiding out. When police are onto him there is running on foot, jumping in ball-aching water to get away, and police – more often than not Armed Offenders Squad, helicopters, the full arsenal of the state – all over him and whoever his hapless sidekick is this time around. Then he’s back inside with “the screws” and then eventually he’s let out to re-offend and be caught again.


His book starts poignantly and gives me an empathy for him as a child. He tells of his torrid time as an 11-year-old in 1968 in Epuni Boys Home, not too dissimilar to the prisons he lived in later. In what was truly appalling public policy, he was ripped from his family in Masterton for wagging school, a sledgehammer approach to crack a small nut. His experience over a few months was violent, with brutal corporal punishment, which in his words (I am sure correctly) turned children like him into “highly trained, fit little offenders”. His wagging and stealing saw him back there three times in three years. I can readily accept this trauma “burrowed deep into [his] psyche” but I’m not sure I can accept it entirely as a 40-year explanation, let alone excuse, for so much serious offending. He makes clear he had a loving supportive family, which so many others in such circumstances don’t, and there were many forks in his road where he could have, should have, turned things around but didn’t.

He’s clearly a leader. In prison he sat top of the pecking order, above other prisoners and, it seems, most corrections officers. He was also in a dodgy sort of a way full of energy and industriousness. Taylor strikes me as having the crook’s integrity or honour code, and I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment.

I have some admiration for Taylor’s legal work. While he was inside, he used his brain – and reservoir of legal knowledge – to keep the penal system accountable. It was a cause higher than himself. But a lawyer he wasn’t, not in name and not in practice either. Prison Break demonstrates Taylor quite simply lacks the ethics for that. 

His book betrays a rank hypocrisy. Everywhere in Prison Break we hear him whining about how badly he has been treated

He has by any measure been a human crime wave. He writes in Prison Break that he was at the heart of an “epidemic” of bank robberies in Auckland in the early 90s so that he’d made “somewhere north of a million dollars during this period”. The cost of this must have been exorbitant to himself – but more importantly to many victims of crime. It’s something Taylor only blithely acknowledges.

Nothing Arthur Taylor ever did in his criminal career has any appeal for me. I give Prison Break ten out of ten for accuracy when he describes prison as either a boring or fearful place. Once outside, Taylor was either on the run and therefore tired, cold and hungry, or doing crimes that held little pleasure and a near certain path back to the clink.

Can we describe him as having real insight about his life of crime? I don’t think so. “We all have choices in life and are responsible for them,” he concedes. And at times he expresses some regret. But I don’t believe he ever really grapples with the actual harm he has done to his victims. He could say it was mostly dishonesty stuff but having someone in your home rifling through your things is hugely invasive and scary, and can stay with you for many years. He seems to have little remorse for victims of his aggravated robberies, or corrections officers who he kidnapped by force. This is before I get to the actual physical violence, the explosives and guns. Arthur Taylor needed to address his crime head on. He doesn’t.

But more than just lacking the requisite insight, I think his book betrays a rank hypocrisy. Everywhere in Prison Break we hear him whining about how badly he has been treated. He holds a deep sense of grievance regarding acts of injustice towards himself. But his concept is entirely a one-way street. When he’s tumbled for an intricate tunneling system inside jail, and Corrections try to transfer him to another jail, he throws a tantrum, smashing things up, creating massive disorder in the wing with other prisoners, with the officers too scared to go into his cell. When they eventually do construct a plan to stop his mayhem that involves cuffing him and taping his mouth to stop wider prison meltdown, it’s all unfair, according to Taylor. What should they have done? Given him a golden ribbon for his tunnel, a car on the other side of the perimeter for his getaway, and a formal invitation to vandalise as much of the jail on the way out as he likes?

My perception after reading Prison Break is that authorities in fact treated him with incredible decency. The cops catch him after he throws himself in an icy river, and gave him a hot bath and drink back at the station. He wants to see his family, so they let him out for the day. His cell isn’t big enough, so they give him the biggest in his wing (“the penthouse suite”). He needs to prepare for his many court cases against them, so they give him his own office and computer.

His philosophy seems to be that the rules only apply to everyone else

Which brings me to his “legal career”. At times Taylor acknowledges he saw the legal proceedings he was in as a game, but then sanctimoniously sermonises about how the law must be obeyed to the letter, and about important principles such as beyond reasonable doubt. “We have to look at a higher value: the protection of the law.” I agree with him. It’s better for 10 factually guilty to go free than one innocent to be wrongly convicted. We must hold ourselves to legal bedrocks in criminal law and ultimately all be under the rule of law. The problem is at no point in the book does Arthur Taylor apply that principle to himself. His philosophy seems to be that the rules only apply to everyone else.

In criminal law it’s absolutely correct that the state must prove its case without any help from the defendant, and also that that case must be proved to that high standard, beyond reasonable doubt. But criminal law isn’t a game. It should be a fact-finding exercise to establish the truth within certain constructs of process and evidence to ensure there aren’t wrongful convictions. But Taylor doesn’t seem to get this at any level. He defends himself without a lawyer in criminal proceedings where he acknowledges he was guilty. In some of the aggravated robbery cases, for example, where he acknowledges he did them, he defends either on the basis no witness could identify him, or where there were witnesses, his mates say that he had no part in it. 

Taylor seems to see law only as a tool to be used any way he wants without constraints. How else can you explain the ridiculousness of the fact that as he was learning the law he was charged with “receiving stolen office equipment and law books from a Thames solicitor’s office”? The irony seems completely lost on him. Then there’s the curious case of the Stratford Court House. The night before he was due to appear, someone burned it down. That’s right, actually burned down a court of law. Not by Taylor, you understand. As he says, “I had an alibi.”. But it’s also true he turned up the next morning to the makeshift court, and argued that he couldn’t be convicted as, under the Summary Proceedings Act, police no longer had the original sworn information (charge paper) it needed. He succeeded and then tells us, “Nobody has ever been convicted of lighting that fire. Later [the police officer] told reporters that a defendant wanting to get out of their case burned it to the ground. It’s anyone’s guess who he’s referring to.” Just a little later he states matter of factly, “It didn’t suit me to be in custody at that time. I had a new girlfriend.”

All of which makes it hard for me to be all cosy and cuddly, as some of our university establishment seem to be, about his prisoner justice work, which he describes at the end of Prison Break. There are harrowing miscarriages of justice from time to time but I don’t see any regarding Arthur Taylor. His behaviour mostly feels entitled and vexatious. As he boasts, he has taken “hundreds upon hundreds” of Ombudsmen complaints. What a guy. I wonder how many had merit? His various disputes have included important work for David Tamihere, and his prisoner voting cases. Were these because he has a genuine passion for justice, or because he has a big ego or a chip on his shoulder?

Ultimately the reason why I found the book annoying and depressing is because Taylor is clearly a very gifted person. His Education Department Psychological assessments gave him an IQ of 140-150. Imagine if, earlier on, he had wised up, used the tool of law with more noble purpose or used his brain in any of a number of other endeavours, whether business (he clearly has an entrepreneurial spirit and industriousness) or law, or anything but crime. But I don’t think he ever learned. In his long criminal career, he was busy fighting over the price of everything but without any sense of the value. What a waste.

Prison Break by Arthur Taylor with Kelly Dennett (Allen & Unwin, $35) is available as an online purchase from bookshops operating under level 3.

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