Australian Humanitarian Kay Danes talks about Families Behind Bars

In 2000, Kay Danes and her husband Kerry, endured 10 months of wrongful imprisonment and torture in Laos. Waiting for the Australian government to secure their freedom, Kay witnessed the untold suffering of prisoners, many detained for years without trial and with little or no contact with family. Kay promised that if she survived that horrific ordeal, she would dedicate her life to raising awareness of these injustices. Since the Danes’ release in 2001, Kay has appeared at several US Congressional forums and worked tirelessly to secure the release of Australians and others interned in foreign prisons.

“10 years on we remember 911,” Kay Danes tweets a week before the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. “10 years on I remember when I sat in a 3×3 prison cell.”

Danes, who this year was named one of Australia’s 50 most iconic women in Karen Phillips’ book Women’s Words of Wisdom, Power & Passion, was oblivious to the horror taking place in New York City on that day. Kay and husband Kerry were living their own nightmare, imprisoned in Laos on fabricated charges of gem smuggling. The experience, which involved torture and complete loss of freedom, spurred Danes to advocate for the rights of others imprisoned overseas.

In 2008, Kay Danes secured her place as one of Australia’s leading humanitarians when her book Families Behind Bars was published by New Holland. Families Behind Bars features the stories of Australians imprisoned overseas and the families who put their lives on hold to bring them home. In addition to high profile cases such as Jock Palfreeman, David Hicks, Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, Kay tells the stories of many more whose stories are never mentioned in the media. The revised and updated edition of Families Behind Bars was released in July 2011.

Danes believes Jock Palfreeman, a young Australian currently imprisoned in Bulgaria on a charge of murder was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He joins almost 1000 Australians arrested overseas each year and over 200 that are imprisoned at any one time.

“His mum and dad were on the verge of retiring and suddenly they’re plunged into this,” Danes told Australian Women Online. “There’s no way of getting that young man back here if there’s no Prisoner Transfer Agreement, so the family has to travel over there to see him. The costs are just enormous. People don’t consider that the family have done nothing wrong,” she said.

Often more debilitating than the financial hardships are the emotional costs to the family of a prisoner who is facing the death penalty or decades in prison.

“Could you imagine the stress [a Bali 9 prisoner’s] mum and dad would be under, waiting for that phone call to say, ‘the appeal’s failed, you’ve got 7 days to get over here, we’re going to take him down, put him against a pole and shoot him’?”

“Families are serving prison with them,” says Danes, adding that some prisoners face a frightful legalised death because of their choices and subsequently may never have the opportunity to make another choice again. Sentencing them to death denies them any chance to correct their mistake or rehabilitate.

“Some people have committed terrible crimes and deserve to be in gaol, but we would like to see [a situation] where a prisoner serves a minimum sentence in that country and then is repatriated back to a prison in their own country,” said Danes.

“The reason that’s such a good idea is they can access their own culture, family, medical facilities, offender programs, educational programs. All these things combined give them the opportunity to maybe do something worthwhile with their life, instead of sitting in a foreign prison doing nothing.”

Since her experience in Laos, Danes has devoted her life to educating others through books, work with the Foreign Prisoner Support Service and speaking engagements about conditions in prisons, unjust judicial systems and corruption abroad.

The stories in Families Behind Bars are a dire warning about the pitfalls that might be encountered when travelling or doing business overseas. Without scaremongering, her accounts offer useful information about staying safe in an unfamiliar environment.

“Every single [parent] I’ve come across says ‘I never thought this could happen to us, we raised our son well, we gave him a good education, he never mixed with any bad people’ and now their son is on death row,” said Danes. “So it can happen to you. It happens out of the blue.”

For more information visit www.kaydanes.com or Kay Danes blog at kaydanes.wordpress.com.

Information for Australians arrested or gaoled overseas can be accessed at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/tips/gaolos.html

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