Review Index


WARREN FELLOWS (Mainstream Publishing; 1998)

This book (titled 4,000 DAYS in the U.S.) was apparently quite popular in its native Australia, and it’s easy to see why. THE DAMAGE DONE is likely the most harrowing prison memoir I’ve read, making the others (which include IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS) look downright dainty by comparison.

     Of course THE DAMAGE DONE will never be endorsed by the Thai tourist bureau, as it’s likely the most rancid account ever published of the “Land of Smiles.” The author is Warren Fellows, an Australian who unwisely got involved with a band of shady drug traffickers. In 1978 Fellows was caught trying to smuggle heroin out of Thailand and sentenced to life imprisonment in “a cesspit of blood and excrement and death and cruelty.”

     Among the horrors Fellows endures inside Bangkok’s Maha Chai prison are constant bites and stings by ants, mosquitoes and giant sewer rats. Food consists of maggot-riddled rice and ground-up cockroaches. Fellows witnesses a guard beat a convict “so heavily that the prisoner’s eyes bulged from his head with blood spewing from behind them.” He also recalls a man’s skull smashed with the butt of an M16--“Making a rude blurting sound, the Thai’s head just split apart, like a watermelon that had been dropped from a height”--and another prisoner put in a bamboo cage and crushed by an elephant.

     And the fun doesn’t stop there! Fellows vividly describes the trauma of being forced to stand in a shit-clogged sewage tank (“Almost as repulsive as the smell was the feeling of this broth creeping around me, seeping into every crevice and pore of my body”) and packed into the “Darkroom,” a tiny sweatbox of a cell crammed with 20 other prisoners. In another cell he’s tormented, he claims, by the wailing of a ghost woman who died years earlier. Fellows appropriately (and understandably) enough becomes addicted to heroin.

     Keep in mind that the above only covers Fellows’ Maha Chai years. After three of them he’s transferred to Bang Kwang, or Big Tiger, apparently the “most feared prison in the world.” There he’s forced to drink filthy river water, undergo heroin withdrawal while moldering in solitary confinement, ordered to crawl through the contents of an exploded sewer, and made to witness a flood of maggots disgorged from a lump on a man’s neck (a cockroach having crawled into his ear and laid eggs).

     The above constitutes a portion of the hideousness described in THE DAMAGE DONE, which concludes with Fellows released from prison after eleven and a half years and uncertainly attempting to readjust to civilian life.

     It could admittedly be better written: Fellows’ descriptive abilities leave much to be desired (we never get a satisfying rendering of the layout of either prison), and his narrative is fractured and frequently broken up by (actual?) diary entries. Does there exist a full diary, and if so why don’t we get more of it?

     But for all its crudity the book is undeniably effective. It’s a fast-moving, squalid and hard-hitting evocation of inhuman brutality. Warren Fellows is admirably upfront about the wrongs he committed, but also makes a convincing case that the unbelievable suffering he endured was too high a price. If nothing else, Fellows’ account will make you realize just how petty your problems truly are in the face of the real horrors contained within these pages.