At 15, Holly Deane-Johns made a decision. It would eventually land her in a Thai prison for 7 years.

Sitting in the lockup in Bangkok, Thailand, after being arrested for drug trafficking, Holly Deane-Johns knew she would one day write a book.

She wanted to tell her story. She wasn't looking for sympathy, but she did want to change minds - to educate people about the impacts of addiction, PTSD, mental health and domestic violence. 

It's a reality she knows all too well. 


Holly's childhood in Western Australia looked idyllic from the outside. But in reality, it was dysfunctional. There was sexual abuse from a relative, alcoholism and violence. Then drugs entered the picture.

"I was 12 or 13 when I first smoked pot. I was then 15 when I tried heroin. I knew a lot of people in my house were using it, and I figured it couldn't be that bad. I kept asking mum again and again if I could try and snort a bit and the answer was always no. Until it wasn't," says Holly.

"My mother and I didn't really have a mother-daughter relationship, we were more like best friends. Later looking back on it as an adult and looking back on that environment, it was totally wrong. But at the time, I thought it was great."

Watch: Jamie Lee Curtis reflections on a life nearly lost to addiction. Post continues below.

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After her parents had separated, Holly’s mum started dating a man who used heroin. Money soon dried up, and by this point, two of Holly's brothers were in prison.

By the time Holly was 20, she had been exposed to a lot, her own drug addiction in full swing. She was convicted of three crimes - conspiracy to import heroin, knowingly concerned with importing heroin and possession of ten ounces of heroin.

Only a year later when Holly was 21 and still in prison, she received the call that her mother had died from a heroin overdose. 

"When I got that call it was devastating. My younger sister was also in jail. Mum was everything to us. She was always there no matter what, so knowing that she was gone, that was a really hard thing to deal with," says Holly.

Before her prison stint, Holly had met Stephen Wallace. He was a bit older than her, but there was an undeniable connection, says Holly. She deeply felt the pair were soul mates.

After finishing her prison sentence of five years, Holly was released from prison. But heroin still had a strong hold over her. She was in a relationship with Stephen, who at the time had fled to Thailand because of drug charges against his name in Australia. Holly would visit on and off, the couple still selling and importing heroin in Thailand in a bid to fund their addictions.

"I never thought anything bad would happen to me, I mean my risk-taking was next-level," Holly tells Mamamia


"I knew what I was doing was illegal. I knew one day I could potentially get caught - but being a heroin addict overshadows all of that. But it was just a thought in the back of your mind, and when you do illegal things for a long time and don't face consequences, that gives you more courage to keep taking and using."

Holly and her mum, and Holly and Stephen when they were young. Images: Supplied.


In 2000, a then 29-year-old Holly was arrested in Thailand. Unbeknownst to her, she was being monitored by narcotics agents and was ultimately caught with heroin. She had tried to mail some drugs in a small parcel to Australia via the post office. 

On this same day, there was a letter waiting at the post office for Holly, it had been sent to her from her dad. Holly never had the chance to read that letter.

"From the moment I was arrested, I badly wanted to speak with my dad. I had put that letter in the glove box of my car with the intention of reading it later, which of course, I didn't get the chance to. But I was later told that he had written saying, 'I don't have a good feeling about you being in Thailand. I want you to come home'. But even if I had read that letter I wouldn't have gone home. I was in too deep."

For a while Holly was looking at death row before she pleaded guilty. In 2003, Holly was sentenced to 31 years in jail. This was later reduced to 22 years and six months.

Holly still vividly remembers her first few nights incarcerated in a Thai prison.

The rooms were filled to capacity and it was hot and muggy. In her book, Holly details what it was like trying to sleep in the cramped cells - all the women lining up parallel to one another, positioned stomach to back. When one of them wanted to sleep on the other side, the whole line of women had to turn over too. 

To cope with it all, Holly says she was high on heroin or anti-depressants for the first few months behind bars. But once she reached the 10-month mark, a feeling dawned on Holly. She was done with drugs.


"You hear people talk about a lightbulb moment. I know it sounds really cliche, but that's exactly what happened.

"I woke up one day and I looked around at my surroundings and I was like, 'What am I doing to myself? Look what I've done to my family and friends, look at where I am.' It was a moment of pure clarity. I just knew I was done. I had to be done."

In terms of possessions while in prison, all she was permitted to keep on her was a towel, a couple of bras, underwear and some toiletries. As for the cleanliness of the place... it was grim. The bug situation wasn't great. Some women slept with toilet paper stuffed in their ears because centipedes and millipedes were prone to crawl inside. Head lice was also common.

The food was challenging too. 

"I had diarrhea for the first six months as the spice-level was very, very hot. It took a long time to get used to. Also there were some days were food was low, and the government food provided was disgusting. You wouldn't eat it unless you had to. And for about the first half of my time inside there were only about 10 toilets for 2,000 women to use. Eventually, five more were built," she says.

"Often people would wake up with someone else's menstrual blood on them because we were packed so close together at night. Tampons were like gold in prison. They weren't sold in the prison shop, so we had to get them through embassy room visits. We always had some, thankfully. The thought of running out of them terrified me."


During her incarceration, Holly received a call informing her that her dad had passed away from a heart attack. 

"I never saw my dad again after I got arrested, and it broke my heart. I never phoned him either, because I didn't make any phone calls. I didn't see the point in a three-minute conversation. It would be torture."

Holly managed to find small sources of comfort during those hellish years though.

She learned Thai, made a few close friends, worked in the prison, and she also wrote to Stephen when she could, who at that point was back in Melbourne incarcerated himself on drug convictions. 

There were also acts of kindness from strangers.

"I probably had the most visitors who were total strangers. Random Aussies would take time out of their holiday to come and see me. Some put money into my account and bought food for me," says Holly. 

"I'm still in touch with several of those visitors."

Fortunately for Holly, Thailand and Australia had come to an agreement - enacting a treaty that allowed Australian prisoners who have completed at least four years of their sentences in Thailand to transfer to an Australian jail. 

It meant she could come home. In 2007, she was moved to Bandyup Prison in Perth to complete the rest of her sentence. She had survived seven and a half years "of hell".

Now in Perth, Holly was able to have her loved ones visit her - including Stephen.


Holly and Stephen after their releases from prison. Image: Supplied.

"He had actually stopped using drugs in jail as well, at the same time as I had. Everything just worked out," she notes. 

If one of us had still been using, our relationship wouldn't have survived. It would have been impossible - you just can't be with somebody if one person is using and the other is not. We thankfully had each other."


Then something extraordinary happened.

Under Thai law, the Thai royal family often offers mass royal pardons or amnesties for prisoners. Holly just happened to be one of the people on the list, her release date changed to 2012. When the time came and Holly was now a free woman, there was nothing but elation.

"I stepped pretty much right back into my old life, except for the drugs. The first day I was out, a girlfriend of mine picked me up and we went to one of Perth's busiest shopping centres, did some shopping and set up my banking. I slipped back into life really easily," says Holly, although she notes that her mental health has been a sometimes bumpy road.

"I didn't think I had any issues for quite a long time. Then I woke up one morning just crying uncontrollably. My doctor let me know that it was related to depression and PTSD, and as soon as he said that it made sense, considering all that had happened. I'll be on medication now until the day I die, and that's fine with me. It's not a shameful thing."

Holly has managed well though, receiving the necessary support, as well as going on to become a qualified social worker and counsellor. She has also worked in the mines in Western Australia. 

After both had completed their various sentences, Holly and Stephen reunited. The years they had together were most special, says Holly. She misses him terribly now. 

"Stephen was diagnosed with oesophagus cancer in 2022. He was granted the choice to use WA's euthanasia laws, and he did so and died in August 2023, as his health was declining. I was right by his side, holding his hand, as he took his last breath," she explains.


"When we were apart and came back together, it was like no time had gone by. That's how it always was with us. He was just my person."

Overall, Holly has spent a great portion of her life - 17 years to be exact - in jail, all because of heroin.

The drug not only impacted her, but her wider family's life - Holly losing her mum, brother and sister to heroin overdoses. She has seen the dark side of life, and hopes that by sharing her story, she can help others dealing with addiction.

"I feel ready to share my story at this point in my life. It's the time. It's my time," she says.

"Everybody knows someone who has been impacted by addiction, mental health or violence in the home. It doesn't discriminate. My life could be anybody's life, it really can. But I want people to know that if they're going down a similar path as I did, there is a way out. Addiction doesn't have to be your life forever."

Holly Deane-Johns' book Holly's Hell: Seven Years in a Thai Prison can be ordered and purchased here.

If this post brought up any issues for you, you can contact Drug Aware, Australia's 24hr alcohol and drug support line. You can reach them on (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024.

Feature Image: Supplied/Photo by Kate Ferguson.