Hotel K: Behind Bars

In 2004, Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella was sent to Bali to cover one of the biggest stories Australia had ever seen – the trial of Schapelle Corby. Schapelle was eventually found guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced to life in Kerobokan Prison. Convinced of her innocence, Bonella moved to Indonesia in 2005 to research and write Schapelle’s bestselling autobiography, My Story. Now, nearly 7 years later, Bonella is releasing her second book, which takes us behind the bars of this notorious prison where three of the Bali Nine currently sit on death row, which once housed the Bali Bombers – a place Bonella quite simply calls ‘a hell hole’.

“I used to be quite cynical, and thought ‘you do the crime, you do the time’, but writing this book has softened my view,” says Bonella. “Meeting prisoners like the Bali Nine, I do have a lot of sympathy for them. Yes, they were stupid young kids and they deserve punishment, but they also deserve another chance in life.”

In her book Hotel K, Bonella describes life at Kerobokan Prison in all its lurid detail: a prisoner trades her baby for a bag of drugs, a furniture factory is a front for a jail yard ecstasy lab, guards triple their salaries by organising orgies, days out and room upgrades. Most inmates are forced to share cramped and disease-ridden cells with no segregation: petty thieves and small-time drug mules sleep alongside paedophiles and rapists.

“Rats run in and out of the cells – they crawl around people’s heads while they’re sleeping – there are snakes… The sewers often fill up and block, the squat toilets overflow into the cells. It’s massively overcrowded: a lot of junkie prisoners are dying of tuberculosis, there’s HIV in there, prisoners are shooting up… It’s an absolute hell hole.”

prisoner shooting up.photo taken mid 2009.
Man shooting up heroin in Kerobokan Prison, Bali

Some prisoners manage to bribe their way into more luxurious settings.

“One prisoner’s cell had a plasma screen, satellite TV and a Bose sound system,” says Bonella. “He even knocked a wall out and made the general bathroom his private en-suite… Anything can be bought. Sling the guards a bit of cash and you can have pizza, beer or even drugs delivered to your cell door.”

Bonella says it wasn’t difficult to get people to open up to her.

“I really found that people were keen to talk. They’d been stuck in prison for years, some were quite lonely. I spent a lot of time with these people, especially the main characters in the book. I built up good relationships with them, and am still in touch with a few.”

In an effort to verify the stories, Bonella often interviewed a number of prisoners and consulted other sources, like newspaper archives and other journalists.

“I asked a number of prisoners the same questions – they almost always tallied exactly. There’s so much crazy stuff going on in there that people don’t need to embellish.”

In addition to the high profile prisoners like Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, Bonella said there’s a steady stream of Aussies passing through the prison.

“They’re regularly coming in and out for small amounts of drugs… There was a guy in there who was accused of paedophilia and he was waiting to be extradited, there was an Aussie DJ quite a while ago. There’s a revolving door of westerners. They’ll get busted with a bit of drugs on them, pay off the system and then get out.”

Unfortunately for Schapelle things weren’t that simple. Bonella describes being in Bali for the verdict as ‘phenomenal’.

“If you were in Australia at the time, you were in the minority if you didn’t stop to watch the verdict on TV. Everyone saw every quiver of her bottom lip, every bead of sweat on her forehead, and the excruciating shock of her hearing ‘20 years’. When the verdict went down, that courtroom was just electric. It was just incredible.”

Afterwards, Bonella and the rest of the 60 Minutes crew went back to a villa to interview the family.

“The adrenalin was pumping, they were devastated, angry, upset – they did a firey interview. To be in the middle of all that – the biggest story in Australia, certainly for a long time – was phenomenal. It was hard not to feel for the family – they were grieving. 20 years is a long time in this Bali prison. It’s no surprise to me that Schapelle’s lost it – I don’t know how you’d survive a week in there.”

I ask Bonella if she still believes Schapelle is innocent.

“I do get asked that all the time. My opinion is that she’s innocent. I understand now that’s a minority view. A lot of people say to me, ‘I think she did it, but I think 6 years has been long enough. It’s time to let her go.’ That’s the attitude of most Australians I speak to. I think she’s innocent. I’m not going to say why.”

As for the Bali Nine, Andrew Chan, Scott Rush and Myuran Sukumaran are awaiting the verdict of their appeal against the death penalty.

Scott Rush and Renae Lawrence from Bali Nine - in prison
Scott Rush and Renae Lawrence from Bali Nine – in prison

“If this fails, they’ll have to seek clemency, but the Indonesian President has never granted clemency to death row inmates for drugs. So if this appeal fails, it’s not looking good for them.”

Bonella said that the discrepancies between the sentences handed down to Scott Rush and Renae Lawrence is a perfect example of the inconsistency and unpredictability of the Indonesian justice system.

“Scott Rush was one of the 4 couriers busted at the airport. He had the least amount of heroin strapped to him and it was the first time he’d done it, while Renae admitted to having done it before. She got 20 years, the other 2 are on life and Scott inexplicably is still sitting on death. He doesn’t understand why. With remissions Renae will be out in 10 years. Scott’s facing a 12 man sniper firing squad.”

Bonella said that Rush, Chan and Sukumaran are ‘not in a good way’.

“Scott goes up and down a lot. He’s a nice kid: very regretful, very lost. They’re living every day with a death sentence on their shoulders. It’s pretty tough.”

In amongst the wreckage of all these broken lives, Bonella there are still glimmers of hope.

“They try to do little things to make themselves feel normal: Scott Rush’s mum bought him a vacuum cleaner; for a while Schapelle had a little dog that Mercedes bought in for her; Renae got a proper bed in her cell; most of them have mobile phones, they have visits twice a day. They try to create a life. They have to. They have no choice.”

Kathryn Bonella’s Hotel K is available in the UK through Amazon, Waterstones, Tesco, Quercus Books and WH Smith.

Published: Australian Times, Issue 348, 15 February 2011.

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