true crime

For 7 years Holly Deane-Johns was in a Thai prison. She said it was 'f***ing horrible'.

When Schapelle Corby was convicted in 2005 of smuggling 4.2kg of cannabis into Bali in her bodyboard bag, a woman named Holly Deane-Johns reached out to her.

Deane-Johns doesn't know if Corby ever received her correspondence, but it was done in good faith - because Deane-Johns was in the same position as Corby. She knew what it was like to do a long stretch of prison time in a foreign country

In 2000, a then 29-year-old Deane-Johns from Western Australia was arrested in Thailand. At the time, she was a "small-time criminal with a big-time drug habit" as per The Age. She was just 16 when she tried heroin for the first time, given to her by her own mother who had taken up with an addict.

Deane-Johns had flown to Thailand on holidays, but soon became caught up in drug smuggling and trafficking alongside fellow Australian Robert Halliwell, who was 50 at the time. Halliwell had lived in Asia for a number of years after jumping bail on drug charges in Australia and fleeing to Thailand in the 1980s.

Unbeknownst to Deane-Johns and Halliwell, they were being monitored by narcotics agents and were ultimately caught with 200 grams of heroin. They tried to mail some of the drugs in a small parcel to Australia via the post office, and the rest was found in Bangkok apartments the pair were leasing.

Specifically, Halliwell was found with 180 grams of heroin and Deane-Johns had 20 grams in her possession. Under Thai law at the time, traffickers found with more than 100 grams of heroin faced a penalty of death by lethal injection.

Watch: Schapelle Corby captures the media frenzy in Bali following her departure from jail. Story continues below.


Video via Instagram.

Deane-Johns pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 31 years in jail. This was later reduced to 22 years and six months. Halliwell was sentenced to life imprisonment after pleading not guilty.

At the time when her sentence was handed down, Deane-Johns said to the media: "I'm happy because it [a non-life sentence] gets me home eventually. It's a relief. I'm happy, guys. I can come home."

Deane-Johns' sentence was carried out at Klong Prem Central Prison in Bangkok. And it was no walk in the park.

In a new interview with The West Australian, Deane-Johns lifted the lid on her time there, saying she often shared a cell with 120 other women in a five by six metre space.

In these conditions, the female inmates would lay shoulder to shoulder and find themselves sticking to one another in the humid heat. She also said that given the very close quarters, she would sometimes find period blood on her from someone else. 

"It was just f***ing horrible, I was wondering where I was going to sleep," she said.

And the food was poor as well - sometimes infested with maggots.

She described the conditions as "harsh", sleeping on a straw mat, and having minimal access to healthcare.


"Everything was harsh, even things as small as a toothache could turn into something big," Deane-Johns recounted, saying one prisoner took it upon herself to remove a rotten tooth with a set of pliers to stop the tooth infecting the mouth.

For years she was isolated from the outside world. It took Deane-Johns and the inmates months to find out that the Boxing Day Tsunami (in 2004) had occurred, and severely impacted Thailand. 

As a close friend told The Age in 2005: "There are no newspapers, no radio, no internet and no access to telephone, so she has to rely on the people who come to visit her. It's overcrowded and it's horrific."

One of the cells in Klong Prem Central Prison in Bangkok. Image: Getty.


To pass the time, Deane-Johns said she would sew silk flowers, learn the Thai language, and mentor her fellow new inmates. She also managed to beat her drug addiction for good.

But during her time in prison, Deane-Johns said one of the most painful experiences was losing her close friend Aong. The pair had grown close while living out their sentences. For Aong, she had been battling HIV and later AIDS, before succumbing to the disease. 

Deane-Johns said it was heartbreaking to see the careless way her friend's body was handled by Thai guards.

"After they picked her up, I watched from my cell as two guys picked her up in a bag and swung her three times before throwing her into a truck like a sack of potatoes," she said to The West Australian. "You could hear the thud and I was like, 'That's my mate'."

Fortunately for Deane-Johns, Thailand and Australia had come to an agreement in recent years - 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 Deane-Johns could come home. In 2007, she was moved to Bandyup Prison in Perth to complete another five years in jail.

Then in 2012 - 12 years after she was arrested in Thailand - Deane-Johns was free from the prison system, aged 40. But the sentence had taken a toll. Deane-Johns revealed she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the ordeal.

The 51-year-old now lives in Western Australia, works as an Uber driver, and has dedicated her time to The Australian Anti Ice Campaign in Perth. Now "living a quiet life", Deane-Johns said she plans to write a book about her experience, hoping her story will help others.

Feature Image: AAP.

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