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Families Behind Bars: Stories of injustice, endurance and hope - Book Review Print E-mail

book_families_behind_bars.jpgAuthor: Kay Danes
Publisher: New Holland, 2008
Reviewed by Gavin Rebetzke

Many will remember that the plight of Kay Danes and her husband Kerry Danes was headline news in 2001. The Danes were imprisoned by the Laotian regime and publicly accused of gem smuggling, although they were ultimately convicted of other, more nebulous charges. After considerable diplomatic effort on the part of the Australian Government, they were pardoned and returned to Australian in November 2001. This is not a book about their ordeal although there is a chapter written by Kay’s mother who writes about the Danes’ imprisonment from her perspective as a family member.1 Families Behind Bars is essentially a collection of stories loosely held together by the theme of families disrupted by a family member caught up in the justice system of a foreign country.

Chapters are devoted to Schapelle Corby, David Hicks, and the Bali Nine. Many other chapters are devoted to the stories of the lesser known prisoners and their families. Kay Danes became directly involved in supporting Schapelle Corby’s family and so has an intimacy with that ongoing saga which makes for interesting reading. It also provokes thought about a number of issues, including the application of Proceeds of Crime legislation to prohibit family members from “profiting” from telling their family member’s story. She asks: how does this take into account the rights of an innocent person wrongly convicted? And: how can a family offset the crippling financial burden of foreign and domestic legal bills; visiting their family member in prison; and even the costs of maintaining their family member in a corrupt prison system?

The book lacks focus and one is left wondering to whom it is targeted. One chapter is explicitly aimed at families who find themselves in the predicament of having a loved one in prison abroad. The book clearly fulfills its apparent function as a resource book for families of those imprisoned abroad but this is, hopefully, a class of reader which will remain low in numbers. The death penalty, family, forgiveness, youthful mistakes, human rights, fair trials and hope are themes which surface throughout the stories in the book. The stories are all written from a rather naïve lay person’s point of view and there is often a lack of a sense of the message the author wishes to convey. Indeed, one gets the sense the author has no agenda on many issues other than to raise awareness and make the reader think about them.

At the end of each chapter, there is a list of internet resources where the reader can access more information about the topics addressed or, indeed, about campaigns for persons who remain imprisoned.

The book seriously suffers from a lack of better editing, with a fair bit of unnecessary repetition and poor structure. Some chapters that are not written by Kay Danes are not clearly attributed to their author. It takes some time to work out they are not written by Kay Danes. One chapter in particular, Sheng’s story, is a minefield of mixed tenses and swaps between first and third person. Some chapters are well written and present very interesting stories in their own right. Some chapters do not appear to fit with any overall scheme at all.

Kay Danes does not directly write about her own experiences in Laos in any detail, and anyone looking for the author’s insights about that experience would be best to first read Kay Danes’ previously published book, Nightmare in Laos: the true story of a woman imprisoned in a Communist Gulag.2 There is, however, an intriguing chapter in which Kay describes the development of a relationship between her and a crotchety old Chinese woman, also imprisoned at Phonthong Prison, Laos. She came to call herself this old woman’s daughter and now wonders what has happened to her.

Overall, this is not a book which you will pick up and not be able to put down until you have read through to the last word. It is too poorly thrown together. But, despite this, it has a wealth of interesting content.

For legal professionals, the book is an important potential resource. Families of Australians arrested or imprisoned overseas are going to continue to look to Australian lawyers for advice and assistance in situations where the family feels entirely out of its depth. The torts and criminal law books on our shelves will not be of much immediate help. Families Behind Bars, including the internet and other resources provided, may assist in dealing with that out of depth feeling: for the Australian lawyer, as well as the family concerned.

Gavin Rebetzke
Roma Mitchell Chambers

1.     Chapter 3, “Bad Things Do Happen To Good People: Kay and Kerry Danes, Laos”.
2.   See Danes, Kay (2006). Nightmare in Laos: the true story of a woman imprisoned in a Communist gulag. Ireland: Maverick House.


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