WHEN Schapelle Corby was arrested in Bali on drug-smuggling charges in 2004, Kathryn Bonella was one of the few journalists she agreed to speak to. At the time Bonella was working as a producer on 60 Minutes but moved to the island shortly after to co-author Corby's autobiography, My Story. She spent a year visiting the jail, nicknamed "Hotel Kerobokan" for its lax security and became so fascinated by the place that she stayed to pen a second book. The result is an insightful and sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia's most notorious prison.
Eccentric, third-world jails have proved fruitful ground for Australian writers - Marching Powder, Rusty Young's 2003 bestseller about Bolivia's San Pedro Prison was optioned for a film by Brad Pitt's production company - and this latest instalment of prison prose has all the staples. Sadistic guards, escape plots, gang violence and rampant drug abuse are punctuated by the near comical - a jail yard ecstasy lab posing as a furniture shop and a lavish prison wedding. Bonella casts a cool, journalistic eye over some horrific events but even plain description is enough to make the opening chapter nauseating. It's an account of "sex night", when, for a fee, guards bring prostitutes into the prison and inmates queue beside a filthy mattress to wait their turn.
Going beyond the usual round-up of disease-ridden cells and arbitrary violence, Bonella provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of the prison's best-known guests. She documents the insidious influence of the Bali bombers on the jail, reflected in details as innocuous as the rising popularity of goatees; fighting in the women's block over the affections of Bali Nine member Renae "the Playboy" Lawrence; and champion yachtsman Chris Packer's generosity during his stint for possession of unregistered firearms. (A Brazilian inmate was particularly impressed by his collection of fine wines and taste for filet mignon, describing him as "a gentleman behind bars".)
Bonella has corroborated testimonies from prisoners and local media to cover a broad scope. However, unlike Marching Powder there is no central individual to drive the narrative.
A large cast of rotating characters prevent many of the more vibrant personalities from becoming truly three-dimensional. Nonetheless, Kerobokan is a compelling character in itself and the tale reverberates with the frustration of trying to navigate a justice system so deeply entrenched in corruption. It's impossible not to be moved by the story of a small-time drug mule, who watches hitmen, paedophiles and rapists walk free as he awaits the firing squad because unlike them, he is too poor to buy back his freedom.
This is a bleak reminder of the cruelty, hypocrisy and injustice taking place in the heart of one of our most popular holiday destinations and a damning indictment of capitalism at its most destructive.