When I heard the story of Cassie Sainsbury, the 22-year-old Australian woman detained on cocaine smuggling charges in Colombia, I was instantly fascinated.
In one moment, the personal trainer went from living freely to facing a 25 year sentence in Bogota’s notorious El Buen Pastor jail. She’s reportedly scared, sick and lonely, and no matter the outcome, her life will never be the same again.
There’s something about these stories that stirs a rare concoction of emotions. At once I’m aware of how terrifying the situation would be, and the anxiety that must be brought on by that level of uncertainty. It’s easy, though, to be critical. How could someone make such a poor decision? How could she get caught up in something so risky?
Listen: Clare Stephens recommends Banged Up Abroad to host Laura Brodnik on The Binge. Post continues after audio.
It’s this strong emotional response, and the countless questions that come with it, that makes these stories so addictive.
And that’s why it’s not enough just to hear about them in the media. We need an entire TV series dedicated to what happens to these people.
I’ve been watching Banged Up Abroad, the National Geographic series that features accounts of people who have been arrested while travelling. It’s been running for years, but in the weeks since Cassie Sainsbury’s ordeal has been in the news I’ve been completely addicted to it.
Not all episodes are about individuals who were caught smuggling drugs. Some tell stories of other crimes, or of people being held hostage or captured overseas. But many follow men and women who faced drug charges in foreign countries – and several of those take place in South America.
The accounts are told with a mixture of personal interviews and dramatic re-enactments, and they're gripping in a way only true stories can be. You go through the entire series of events that led a person to be arrested overseas, and what's happened in the years since.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating insights is the reality of life behind bars.
One woman, Angela Carnegie, spent almost nine years in prison in Thailand for drug smuggling. She describes the conditions as "crowded, dirty, and unsanitary," and says women were "often times standing in floating sewage which overflowed from the sewage canal that ran all around the edge of the prison".
According to Carnegie, the food was "barely edible and often had rocks or bugs in it," and there were rats everywhere you looked.
"It is nothing that someone who hasn’t experienced can really imagine… ever," she says.
Jennifer Davis and Krista Barnes spent nearly three years in prison for trying to smuggle cocaine out of Peru. The American women were asked by two Peruvian acquaintances if they wanted to make some easy money, by travelling to Peru to pick up some cocaine. They were told they'd receive an all-expenses paid trip to Peru, as well as $5000 each. Davis recalls, "It was a free trip, a free ride. They said, `You are not going to get caught.'"
Of course, they did.
For me, the most powerful episodes are those where the camera zooms out at the end, only to reveal that the subject of the story is still in prison. Those are the ones that really hit you. Because one bad decision can steal the rest of your life.
And that is truly terrifying.