In 2005 Bonella embarked on a private project, writing Schapelle Corby's "My Story", reprinted in 2008 as "No More Tomorrows" and now translated in Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Dutch.
Her latest book "Hotel Kerobokan" was released into book shops in November 2009 creating a great stir in many many circles via the story it tells of prison life in Bali.
The Interview: Karthryn Bonella, Author "Hotel Kerobokan"
Balidiscovery.com: From working on major TV news production to writing a book on Bali's main prison. What's the background on that journey and how did you become inspired to write an expose on life behind bars in Bali?
Bonella: "As a journalist I've always had a passion for strong, compelling stories and for several years worked for ‘60 Minutes,' with the incredible luxury of being able to fly anywhere in the world to produce a story. It was on one of these international assignments that my long-term connection with Kerobokan Prison was spawned; the story was the catalyst that changed my life, inspiring me to write an expose of life behind bars at Bali's Kerobokan Prison."
"Back in 2004, I flew to Bali for ‘60 Minutes' to meet Aussie Schapelle Corby, who'd just been busted at Denpasar Airport with 4.2 kg of marijuana in her boogie board bag. I met Schapelle in her Polda police cell, and a few weeks after her arrest I produced, with reporter Liz Hayes, the first exclusive TV interview with the Queenslander. I stayed close to the story and in May 2005 returned to Bali to produce the 60 Minutes' feature on Schapelle's verdict day."
"Like most Australians, I was fascinated by Schapelle's story. Indisputably, the debate over ‘did she or didn't she?'; the fact she was a good looking, fresh-faced Aussie girl next door, unwavering in her pleas of innocence, and now, locked up in the hell-hole Kerobokan Prison for 20 years - all increased the intrigue in her story. For me, it was a simple decision to quit ‘60 Minutes' and move to Bali at the end of 2005, when I was offered the chance to co-write with Schapelle, her autobiography. For several months I visited her twice a day for hours in Kerobokan Prison, interviewing her in graphic details and recording every word. It was during these months that I saw the wild, crazy, and violent, sex-crazed world inside the jail. "
"Western and local inmates regularly came up to Schapelle and me for a chat, stoned, drunk or just wanting to stave off the interminable boredom that insidiously invades the psyche of every prisoner. "
"I was fascinated by how this sketchy little society operates, how those on death row or serving 20 years cope, how they make this place home because they have to, how they fill the tedious long hours. I met Gordon Ramsay's junkie brother, Ronnie, doing time for heroin possession; a king of Bali who did a week for stabbing to death his brother; most of the Bali Nine; several other international drug traffickers; and killers, gangsters and many, many others. "
"I saw and heard intriguing stories; sex nights, photos of hookers brought around by guards like menus, days out at the beach, cell upgrades including one that rivaled a 5-star hotel rooms with a Bose surround sound system, a plasma TV and en suite bathroom, or others with a Jacuzzi or a meditation pond with a Buddha statue – like any hotel. Cash at this ‘hotel' could buy perks. Without cash though, inmates often lived like animals, with up to 25 men crushed into the initiation cells for months and months with insufficient room to even lie down and only one squat toilet between all of them. At the back of the jail was a furniture factory that was a front for an ecstasy factory. "
"Things that at first seemed totally surreal and unreal; like seeing full sexual intercourse, prisoners smoking drugs, and killer doormen prisoners escorting me out, soon became familiar. One Indonesian inmate, nicknamed Silver, doing time for murder, regularly walked me out to hail a taxi on the way back from the gym. As a journalist, I knew if I could get the walls to talk through the prisoners' stories, it would make a fascinating book and possibly exposing the truth of this place might even do some good."
Balidiscovery.com: Without divulging confidential sources, what was the general method used to acquire the information to write the book and how long did that process take?
Bonella: "Since starting my first book with Schapelle Corby, I've spent hundreds of hours inside Hotel K, and talked to about a hundred prisoners and guards about life inside the jail. I lived in Indonesia for 18 months to write my second book, (Editor: ‘Hotel Kerobokan' in Australia and ‘Hotel K' in the UK), and also travelled to far flung parts of Indonesia, including Malang and Nusakambangan to talk to ex-Kerobokan prisoners. With the main characters/inmates I did a series of interviews, recording them with my tiny digital recorder, usually returning to do second, third and sometimes a fourth series of interviews. I sought graphic details, often asking several prisoners to describe the same story, to ensure accuracy. The stories almost always tallied; no one needed to embellish; the stories were wild enough. Some of those I interviewed are now free, including a Balinese hit-man who hacked off a man's head. Sometimes they would shake their head, laughing, seeing for the first time, now they were out of there, just how crazy the place was."
"Almost all the prisoners I approached were keen to talk, many writing long pages of possible topics or detailed accounts of their life inside. Also, I spent weeks going through local newspaper archives to backup the stories I was told; I also interviewed prison guards, including the security boss or second in charge, who was recently moved to another jail in a routine rotation of prison bosses. Many times I met this security chief for drinks or dinner so he could tell me stories for the book – one night he even phoned a couple of inmates – including the Australians in their cell on their mobile and put me on to say ‘hi.' It was indicative of how casually the guards collude with prisoners."
"I recorded almost every single interview on my small digital recorder, which I easily got inside Kerobokan Prison and other jails, for accuracy. In the book, I quote prisoners directly, and all these are transcribed from recordings."
Balidiscovery.com: Some parts of the book seem are very graphic and detailed about life in Hotel K. Some of the more powerfully drawn incidents are told in the first person and not attributed to a source. Are any parts of the book partially fictionalized or can the reader take all parts of the book as factual?
Bonella: "No part of the book is fictionalized. I was able to paint images with graphic details after spending hundreds of hours interviewing about 100 people. I'm a journalist, and it was important to make it accurate. The place is so wild and bizarre, that there is no need to embellish or fictionalize. There's been a PR campaign to create an image of a much-improved prison. But I regularly speak to prisoners and nothing has changed; the drug market is still rampant."
"For years, drug dealers and guards have operated a credit system inside the jail, selling westerners drugs on credit , then calling it in, and brutally bashing those who don't pay - until eventually most westerners find someone outside who they can convince to pay their bill."
Balidiscovery.com: There's much in the news about an Australian-Indonesian prisoner exchange, which is a foreign concept to Indonesian law. Do you see a future prisoner exchange happening?
Bonella: "Yes, I think it will probably happen, eventually. A prisoner exchange is something that the Australian and Indonesian Governments have been trying to agree on for more than six years – before Schapelle Corby's arrest. Maybe now though, with the billions of dollars Australia has recently given to Indonesia, and the cordial high profile relationship that seems to now exist, an agreement might be reached in the near future. But who really knows?"
Balidiscovery.com: Of any of the Australians currently behind bars at Hotel K, are there any you feel are completely innocent of the crime for which they were convicted?
Bonella: "It's now the minority view, but I do believe that Schapelle Corby is innocent. The feedback I get from a lot of people in Australia is ‘yeah she did it, but six years is enough - let her come home.' There are many reasons why I believe she's innocent, and it would be too lengthy to sum it up in a sentence or two. Suffice to say that there's been a lot of misinformation in the press that has totally skewed public perception. As a cynical journo, I didn't start off believing she was innocent, but after spending a lot of time researching it, and plying her and her sister with questions, I believe that Schapelle didn't put the drugs in her boogie board bag."
Balidiscovery.com: Despite the tough conditions described at the prison in your book, the Mother of Schapelle Corby once said her daughter is better off in an Indonesian prison than in an Australian prison. What's your view?
Bonella: "Corruption is endemic in Kerobokan Prison and in other Indonesian jails - as highlighted in November 2010 when it was reported that prisoner Gayus Tambunan paid the jail warden bribes to be allowed out of his Javanese jail to fly to Bali and watch a tennis match."
"Kerobokan prisoners told me that with cash they can buy ‘perks' including days out, drugs, booze or pizza delivered to their cells, sex in private rooms, hookers, mobile phone use, extra-long visits, cell upgrades, etc.. Prisoners in Indonesia also get twice yearly remissions. But, despite these positives, Kerobokan Prison is massively overcrowded, filthy, disease ridden, rat infested, and often the water is so dirty it gives the men rashes. The women's block now has running water in the ten cells, but it's often dirty, and sometimes the pressure is too weak to reach all the cells. For Schapelle, receiving any perks at all is difficult too, because she's so high profile. Western jails are undoubtedly a lot more hygienic, with running hot and cold water, and fewer rats of the fury kind! But visits are limited, there are no remissions, and bribes and perks – though they do happen - are not a general part of prison life. But for general health and well-being, I still think Australian prisons are far preferable."
Balidiscovery.com: Recently Martin Stephen had his life term affirmed by the Indonesian Supreme Court. Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are awaiting the results of their appeal seeking the commutation of their death sentences. Have you met all four of these men in the course of writing your book? What's your view on their guilt and the appropriateness of their sentences?
Bonella: "I did meet most of the Bali Nine. During the writing of Schapelle's book, I saw a fair bit of Renae Lawrence before she and Schapelle fell out. I chatted regularly to Andrew Chan, Matthew Norman and Scott Rush. For my book, ‘Hotel K,' I recorded several interviews with Scott Rush and his cell mate Emmanuel – both who are on death row."
"There is no doubt all nine of the Bali Nine are guilty as convicted; but they were all young and stupid and, I believe, deserve a second chance. Who knows what the Indonesian judiciary is going to decide on their pending appeals against the death sentence, but I certainly hope it's successful. They undoubtedly deserve to be punished, and I'm sure they wouldn't disagree. They were foolish, stupid kids, who tried to traffic drugs from a country that carried death. Very, very stupid. But I don't think killing them is going to help anyone."
"I feel sorry for Scott Rush, who was 19 when he got busted, and turned 21 shortly after his sentence was upped to death. This highlights the crazy inconsistency of the Indonesian legal system. While Scott is facing a 12-sniper firing squad, the other three couriers caught at the airport with him, and who were all carrying more heroin, are serving between 20 years and life."
Balidiscovery.com: In your opinion, what are the chances of rehabilitation for those imprisoned at Kerobokan?
Bonella: "Little to nil. The huge number of recidivist prisoners proves there isn't much rehab at Hotel K. For years prisoners have been encouraged to open business, and, stretching back through the decades, prisoners have grown vegetables for supermarkets and restaurants, run printing factories, a furniture factory, and more recently are teaching English or doing art. But without fail, the most brisk business inside Kerobokan Prison is the drug market. The guards are involved, easily doubling their monthly salary in a day or two. During the past few years, several guards have been busted and convicted for drugs, including the jail's second-in-charge, Security Chief Muhammad Sudrajat, who was busted and convicted for drug dealing in 2007.'
"One Kerobokan guard, Beni Irawan, was convicted and sentenced to five years jail for the sinister crime of taking a laptop into the cell for terrorist Samudra to use and recruit terrorists for the second round of Bali bombings in 2005."
"Hotel K is a place where it is very easy to continue your profession inside, whether it's terrorism, drug dealing or gambling. Some prisoners busted for counterfeiting dollars, even set up their scam on the prison population, using prisoners and guards to spread the word and find investors. Given that many do not stop their crimes inside, there's little chance of rehabilitation once they're free. Indonesia likes to claim their prisons are rehab facilities, but that's a total joke – ask anyone who knows the system and who is being honest."
Balidiscovery.com: You'll soon publish an updated edition of "Hotel K." What will be different about the new edition?
Bonella: "'Hotel K' is coming out in the UK on February 3. It's got extra information about King Pemecutan and Gordon Ramsay's brother Ronnie – as well as updates on many of the prisoners.