The Prison Manual That Was Key To An Escape

In 1990, a 25-year-old Australian man named Daniel Luthur Heiss was convicted of the murder of 19-year-old Dean Robinson the year prior. Like most convicted murderers, Heiss was sent to prison; in this case, he was given a 20-year sentence. But Heiss didn’t spend all 20 years behind bars. In 1995, he escaped from prison and spent 12 days on the run before being recaptured.

His escape wasn’t a solo job, though — he had help. And not from just his fellow inmates or a friend on the outside. The prison gave him the tools he needed to break free.

Or, at least, a picture of one.

Upon sentencing, Heiss was assigned to Berrimah Prison, an institution operated by Australia’s Northern Territory Correctional Services. There wasn’t anything particularly special about Berrimah Prison — it suffered from overcrowding and was ultimately closed and replaced in 2014. While there, Heiss befriended some of the guards, chatting them up here and there. And along the way, he noticed their keys. Guards at Berrimah had distinct-looking E-shaped key that could open any of the prison cells — a shape you’d not normally see for, say, a car or house key. And for some weird reason, one of Heiss’s fellow inmates — a convicted murderer named Shane Baker — “was a jeweler who had jewelry-making equipment in his cell.” Heiss and Baker decided to make themselves a key.

But of course, knowing the general shape of a key not enough to break out of one’s cell. When it comes to keys, the details matter; knowing that the prison’s master key is E-shaped key isn’t going to do you any good. Heiss needed to get close to the key if he wanted Baker to make one for them, and it’s not like the prison guards were going to give them one to tinker with. But, accidentally, they gave them something good enough: a close-up image of the key in question.

Upon arrival at Berrimah, each inmate was given a handbook outlining the rules, regulations, and other need-to-know facts about prison life. And, as a corrections officer told, that handbook had some additional information on the cover: “The prisoners’ information handbook had a pair of crossed keys on the front of it. Those keys were a dead-set copy of the keys that we had. The key he copied was in the shape of a figure E, which was the master key.”

With the key in hand, escape was inevitable. Per the above-linked news story, “Heiss let himself out of his cell before opening Baker’s cell door. They got out of the complex by scaling three razor-wire perimeter fences.” A manhunt for both ensued, with Baker (who was apparently injured by the fence) being captured in just a few days. Heiss’s time on the lam was a bit longer; it took authorities 12 days to locate and recapture him. The prolonged search caused authorities a great deal of embarrassment — one they hoped to avoid in the future. So, shortly after Heiss was brought back behind bars and the guards figured out what happened, they quietly fixed the problem. According to the Independent, “the prisoners’ handbooks were [. . . ] swiftly removed and contractors called in to change the locks.”

Heiss didn’t escape after that, but he was paroled after 21 years, per the Sydney Morning Herald. That parole, like his escape, wasn’t enough to keep him out of prison; five years later, he was sent back to jail for using drugs in violation of his parole

Bonus fact: It’s probably a bad idea to give prisoners keys to their cells, but it’s also not unheard of. In Nuuk, the capital and most populous city of Greenland, prisons are just, well, different. As the Huffington Post notes, “some inmates reportedly hold the keys to their own cells (to afford them privacy), and others may leave the premises during the day to go to work or school.” Per Wikipedia’s editors, there’s a very practical reason for this, historically: the small population of the area, combined with the rough climate, means everyone who can be trusted to work needs to be out there working. So except in extreme cases, prisoners join society by day and are expected to — and typically do — return to their cells at night.

From the Archives: The TV News Program’s Key Mistake: A similar issue, but not quite as overt.