She was jailed for one of the biggest white-collar crimes committed by a woman in Australian history, spending more than four years behind bars in a maximum security prison.
But mum-of-two Kerry Tucker, 55, has now revealed in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60 exactly how she survived sharing a room with four murderers, while watching friends and fellow inmates go insane from fear – before eventually seeing her time in jail as beneficial and something she “wouldn’t change in a heartbeat”.
Kerry, who features on the ABC’s TV show Compass: Upside of Shame on September 22, was sentenced to seven years with a non-parole period of four-and-a-half years in 2004 for stealing almost $2 million from the saw mill she was working at. She had previously pleaded guilty to four counts of theft and one court of obtaining property totalling $1,962,602 by deception over a six-and-a-half year period.
For almost seven years, she had slowly been siphoning money away to pay the bills at home and fund her family’s comfortable lifestyle – all in an effort to keep up a “perfect world” for her kids.
However, when the time came to face her crimes, Kerry, who was 40 at the time, said she took her punishment without complaint and embraced it – despite it meaning years behind bars at Deer Park’s notorious Dame Phyllis Frost maximum security prison with some of Australia’s most dangerous criminals.
“I was a little bit fortunate in a roundabout way in that the prison was full so I spent three weeks in holding cells at first,” she explained. “There were about five or six different women with me who had been in prison hundreds of times before. They became very protective of me and I of them. The conditions there were horrendous, so by the time I got to prison it seemed very comfortable.”
Kerry began her time there in the remand unit, where she stayed for 18 months. There, she had her own cell and was able to meet the other inmates and befriend them early on, offering them advice and a shoulder to cry on – even helping many of them with their parole bids.
However, it was far from luxury, as she added: “If I outstretched my arms and moved a little bit to the side I’d touch the wall. It was 15-and-a-half of my feet long and I’m a 7-and-a-half shoe!”
After the 18 months in a solo cell, she was eventually moved to a shared room with five other inmates – four of whom were murderers.
“But they weren’t serial killers,” she insisted. “They’d [likely] killed their husbands from years of abuse… they’d not done it every week as a hobby. You’re never in danger as far as that goes. Of course there are drugs feuds and fights, but I used to negotiate between the fights. That was my job, I knew everyone in there.”
She added: “Generally women are mindful, they’d have the crap beaten out of them outside, they’re not going to start doing it inside.”
However, she immediately realised the biggest risk wasn’t necessarily physical injury, but mental – with fear reducing many inmates to nervous breakdowns. So much so, she witnessed several of her fellow prisoners taken away to mental hospitals during her time there.
“They [the female prisoners] will psychologically destroy you, they will cripple you,” she explained. “They’ll walk past someone’s cell and say ‘we’re gonna get you’, and I’ve seen girls go insane with the fear – literally taken out to a mental hospital. Fear is the most debilitating emotion, I think. I just removed the fear factor myself.”
While Kerry insisted the facilities were very basic, with absolutely no luxuries inside, she revealed each prisoner has a TV – something she insisted is necessary to stop them becoming institutionalised.
“Leaving you for hours in your own mind, particularly if you’re a victim of incest or rape which 95 per cent of the girls in there are, one you’re institutionalised, two you’re cut off from the real world, which you’re going to re-enter, and three – if you’re made to sit in that mind, you can go insane. Suicide attempts would be massively increased.”
She went on: “But there’s no luxury benefits. It’s Groundhog Day, every day, exactly the same things happening every day, day in day out without fail. It’s so regulated.”
Meanwhile, Kerry was assessed by a psychologist when she was first jailed and found to be suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (or multiple personality disorder, as it was formally known as). It meant she had unknowingly been living her life in three separate personality types, switching between them without even knowing she was doing it.
The mum explained she didn’t know it was even happening at the time, and added: “You’re in a dissociative state, you’re almost in a coma. There’s a couple of times I drove a 45 minute drive and I’d stop to fill up petrol and suddenly it would click, and I’d think ‘where am I? How did I get here’? It wasn’t until I was diagnosed that I remembered all this.”
However, after spending 18 months behind bars before her trial, she had another test and a psychologist determined she no longer registered on the scale at all. She had somehow overcome and taken control of the disorder. This control and ability to use her disorder in her favour ended up benefitting her behind bars.
“I was a bit of a chameleon. If I was negotiating a turf war I’d use their language, their body language, their stance, their tongue, but if I was talking to an officer it was with respect. I moved in and out of about eight different personas while I was in there, daily,” she said. “In the end I was controlling that, but in the early stages I was using it to benefit me, mentally.”
Kerry appears on Compass: Upside of Shame with presenter Jane Caro on Saturday September 22 at 6pm on ABC.