EXCLUSIVE: After spending half her life in prison, Holly Deane-Johns is ready to talk

'I survived the Bangkok Hilton'.

Whatever your idea of a nightmare is, think again. This is how Holly Deane-Johns remembers her time in the notorious Thai prison known as the Bangkok Hilton.

“You go into survival mode,” Holly tells Woman’s Day. “The things I saw, I couldn’t believe. You’d look into [other prisoners’] eyes and there was nothing there any more. That was scary as that could be you someday.”

Holly, now 52, was arrested in 2000 after being caught with 30 grams of heroin and spent seven years at Lard Yao Women’s Correctional Institution in Chatuchak, Thailand.

After growing up in a violent household where drugs were always around, Holly’s own addiction began when she was just 15 after being given heroin by her mother. “I wish I’d never tried [it] because that was the beginning of the end for me,” she says.

Holly was sentenced to 31 years in jail. (Image: Supplied)


Charged with drug trafficking and possession alongside her friend and fellow drug smuggler Bob Halliwell, Holly ended up being the longest incarcerated Australian prisoner returned from Asia.

Nicole Kidman’s famous 1989 miniseries Bangkok Hilton showed the grim conditions inside the prison, but Holly says the reality was even worse.

“It was sweltering in that cell with everyone’s bodies pressed against each other,” she says, describing the experience of living alongside 2000 inmates with no food, personal space or medical care.

“Every day you were fighting for everything. If you didn’t get to the shower in time, there was no water left. [It was the same with] food, toilet paper, bottled water. A lot of people were thieves – not because they wanted to, but they had to.”

The moment she watched a pregnant inmate rummaging through a rubbish bin for food still haunts Holly.

“I had a visit that day and received a punnet of strawberries. Most of them were rotten so I threw them away. But I watched her get them out,” she says. “I told her not to eat them and gave her something [else] to eat. You’d see that daily.”

Holly, who also served time in Australia on drug charges, admits she spent her first few months in Lard Yao abusing drugs to cope. But 10 months into her sentence, she stopped and has been clean ever since.

“I woke up and looked at my surroundings and that flicked a switch for me. I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’ve ruined my life,’” she says. “I knew I was done.”

Nicole Kidman in the 1989 Bangkok Hilton miniseries. (Image: Supplied)


Frustrated at not being able to understand the language, Holly began studying Thai and learned to sew and made silk flowers and clothes. She also became friends with Thai inmates and “foreigners” like herself and is still in contact with many of them.

Everything at the prison had to be bought by the inmates. Visits from her brother Mark and late sister Amy were also a huge support for Holly and they would bring her food and other supplies, while visiting Aussie tourists would also help.

“The visits I loved were the genuine people who came just because they knew I was there,” she says. “It made my day because you’re getting news of what’s going on outside – we didn’t know 9/11 had happened until two weeks later.”

In late 2007, Holly’s prison transfer request was accepted, and she was moved to Bandyup Women’s Prison in Perth, where she served another five years. After spending 12 years behind bars, on December 6, 2012, Holly was finally free.

‘I survived the Bangkok Hilton’. (Image: Kate Ferguson)


Holly has spent the years since then writing about her horrific prison experience, her recovery and desire to return to Thailand. After she was freed, Holly also reunited with the “love of her life” Stephen Wallace, who sadly passed away in 2023 from cancer.

“I thought that being in a Thai prison was the worst thing to happen to me, but it didn’t compare to living each day with the knowledge that my time with Stephen was running out,” she writes in Holly’s Hell.

Now trained in youth work and counselling, Holly wants to help others overcome their addictions and warns of the dangers. “I used to think I didn’t have many regrets. But I suppose I do,” she says. “I’ve spent about half my life in jail because of that drug. I can’t get back the years I wasted inside prisons.”

Holly’s book Holly’s Hell – Seven Years in a Thai Prison is available to purchase from Booktopia. You can buy it for $27.95 here.

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