Book review

Aged just 20, Holly started her first jail sentence, five years in a Perth jail for drug charges. At 29, she was sentenced to 31 years in the infamous Lat Yao prison in Bangkok – also known as the Bangkok Hilton – convicted on charges of trying to post 15 grams of heroin, concealed in a calendar, back to herself in Perth. This powerful and thought-provoking book is Holly’s story of her seemingly inevitable trip down to the depths of hell, and her courageous trip back up again.

Holly Deane-Johns

Holly’s response to questions about her seven years in a Thai prison was always the same: “Whatever your idea of hell is, multiply it by a thousand”. These thousand hells are told in her own words, from her briefly normal-sounding childhood via violent, alcoholic, drug-addicted parents and siblings to her eventual release and reinvention as a social worker, counsellor and hypnotherapist.

Heroin almost destroyed her life

Holly’s story is raw and confronting. Her straightforward recounting of her experiences in 44 short chapters manages to avoid the “trauma porn” genre, telling like it is without exaggeration or self-pity. The inclusion of photos of Holly and her family, as well as the love of her life, Stephen, brings a poignant reality to Holly and the people around her. It is hard to fathom that most of them have died, and most due to addiction. Holly managed to quit all drugs less than a year in to her stay in Lat Yao. As she writes, “I had taken a good, hard look at my life and I could see that heroin had destroyed it. It had destroyed the lives of many people I knew”.

Cover of Holly's Hell with photograph of the author behind bars.

At times, her lack of insight into her situation is frustrating, but her life story is one of survival rather than reflection. We feel as though we are there with Holly, sleeping back-to-back in an overcrowded cell, hustling to stay alive. The details of day-to-day life behind bars are told without self-pity, from experiencing extreme hunger to showering outdoors in the rain as there was no alternative.

Relationships with fellow prisoners were often fraught, although Holly made many friends and was visited by both embassy staff and Aussies travelling in Thailand. She recounts a spat with a “friend” over a loaf of bread, which ends with her telling the woman to “Go away … Don’t ever come to this house or try to talk to me again. You’re not a real friend.” No one is at their best in prison.

Are prisons really any good?

Holly’s Hell left me contemplating the living hell of prison. Why do we see this extreme form of punishment as good for prisoners or society? People with mental health and addiction issues need our help and compassion. Holly could have been supporting others in the community long, long before her sentence was up. Given that her time in a Thai prison came after a spell in Perth’s Bandyup Women’s Prison, we don’t seem to be doing a very good job of rehabilitation. And if drug use were decriminalised, perhaps all this would not have happened.

Holly’s Hell is published by Jessica Muddit of Hembury Books. Available on Amazon as an ebook.

Why not get yourself a signed copy from the author?

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