real life

Everything you imagine about prison life is wrong. Just ask ex-inmate Kerry Tucker.

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Kerry Tucker shared a cell with four female killers in one of Australia’s most notorious maximum-security prisons.

There was a fifth woman who was incarcerated in what Tucker refers to as “the cottages” who, at the time, had one of the most recognisable surnames in the country.

Renate Mokbel.

The sister-in-law of Tony Mokbel, a drug lord who sat at the top of Australia’s Most Wanted List, Renate was a suburban mother-of-three, jailed for perjury.

But she didn’t come alone.

Her three-year-old son also shared the cell with Tucker, and four female killers.

“He was right where he needed to be,” Tucker told Mamamia, reflecting on her time in Melbourne’s Dame Phyllis Frost maximum-security prison.

“Prisons are safe places for children and babies… the laughing and squealing in the background gave [the prison] a real sense of normality,” 55-year-old Tucker said.

Kerry Tucker spent more than four years in prison. Image supplied.
Kerry Tucker spent more than four years in prison. Image supplied.

This was not the prison Tucker had ever imagined.

In the month before Kerry Tucker entered, she decided there was something she urgently needed to do: Work out at the gym every day.

"I have no idea why," she said, stifling a chuckle.

Did she expect her time in prison would be spent physically defending herself against violent murderers? Possibly.

That her strength might place her higher on the prison hierarchy - signalling to other inmates that she was not a woman to be messed with? Probably.

But the make-believe prison that Tucker had conjured up bore no resemblance to the compound she entered in 2004, after being charged with one of the biggest white-collar crimes ever committed by a woman in Australia's history.

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The Victorian mother-of-two had stolen almost $2 million from the saw mill she worked at over a six-and-a-half year period.

kerry tucker
Kerry Tucker pleaded guilty. Image supplied.

The money had been used to support her family's lifestyle - projecting a "perfect world" to those around her.

But when six police officers arrived at her local gym in 2004, Tucker offered no resistance. She plead guilty and accepted her punishment.

At 40 years old, the well-liked and sociable working mother became a prisoner, known to the system as number 171435.

In summer she was locked inside the cottage at 7pm - in winter, 5pm. "When it rained," she recalled, "and I could hear it on the roof, I thought of my girls. At home they would come and snuggle up with me whenever it rained. You don’t realise how special it is until you’re really separated from it."

In a shared television room, movies would play that made her wish - harder than she'd ever wished for anything in her life - that she was home on the couch with her daughters, laughing.

"It was those special times that you could have at will that I really had issues with," she said. "The time lost."

Tucker kept detailed journals, writing down things like "I spoke to Sarah and she learned that 12 plus 1 equals 13", desperate not to lose any of it.

When it came to the day-to-day, inmates were fed three meals a day, prepared by other women. Sanitary items were all provided, and everything else, from deodorant to toothpaste, could be bought over the counter.

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The work she described as "mind-numbing". Tucker sanded chairs by hand, and now says inmates are made to untangle headphones, which she refers to as "pointless, stupid and meaningless" work.

If you're someone who struggles with anger or aggression, Tucker said, the work "surely isn't going to help your temperament."

And temperament, at times, became an issue.

Tucker recalled many inmates struggling with drug addiction, and others who she simply did not get along with.

"I'm no shrinking violet," she said, recalling, "a few people I disagreed with on things and they disagreed right back.

"We'd always just end up in a yelling match and it wasn't nice to be around - they were few and far between but when it happened, the fights were legendary."

kerry tucker
Kerry Tucker has since graduated with a PhD and is a lecturer at Swinburne University. Image supplied.

It was these sorts of relationships, as well as the friendships she formed with inmates, which she hoped to represent in a realistic way when she consulted on the first season of the acclaimed Australian prison drama, Wentworth. 

"You see the woman before you’ve even seen the crime," she said.

"The worst thing you could do is judge anybody else. There's never any secrets."

Perhaps that was the most important lesson Tucker learned inside prison, as well as treasuring every moment she now gets to spend with her two daughters.

She now advocates for better education of women in prison, so that others, too, can have a second chance.

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