Heather Mack, 19, was sentenced to 10 years in an Indonesian prison for her role in the brutal murder of her mother

By Johnny Dodd
Updated September 25, 2015 08:00 AM
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Credit: Firdia Lisnawati/AP

The prison cell in Bali where Heather Mack now sits with her infant daughter is a world away from the tony mansion where the 19-year-old grew up in upscale Oak Park, Illinois.

Sentenced, along with her boyfriend Tommy Schaefer, to 10 years in Indonesia’s infamous Kerobokan prison for her role in the brutal murder of her mother, Sheila von Wiese-Mack – whose battered body was discovered stuffed in a suitcase in the trunk of a taxi in August 2014 – Heather now spends the bulk of her waking hours cooking, cleaning and tending to her daughter Stella.

“Time kind of flies by in here,” Mack tells PEOPLE from her prison cell on Sept. 23, hours before federal prosecutors in Chicago unsealed court documents announcing the arrest of Schaefer’s cousin for his alleged role in the murder. “You’d think it [time] would move slower here, but it doesn’t.”

Mack, 19, who gave birth to Schaefer’s child in March, speaks in a whisper, hoping to avoid waking the infant who sleeps in her bed in the cell that she shares with seven other female prisoners. “They’re all really good about [Stella],” she says. “A lot of them are mothers and when I first had Stella they were all trying to get me to use some of their Indonesian traditions with her, like feeding her rice, chicken on the bone and putting onions on her head. But after they saw I wasn’t going to budge, they stopped.”

‘She’s Given Me a Purpose’

While it may be hard to muster up any sympathy for someone convicted in the murder of their mother, Mack – who insists that she “did not kill” von Wiese-Mack – says motherhood has been the single-most transformative experience of her tumultuous life.

“I’ve kind of learned as I’ve gone along,” she says. “I thought that having a baby would be like having a puppy. But she is not a puppy. She is everything. She has taught me what love is. She has given me a reason to want to live. She’s given me a purpose each morning when I wake up. When Stella is awake, the days are good – I can’t have a breakdown. But at night when she’s asleep, it gets tough.”

In between tending to her daughter, Mack, like all the inmates at Kerobokan, is expected to cook and pick up after herself. The women take turns preparing meals on a tiny gas stove, tidying their quarters and constantly sweeping the floor of their cell.

“Indonesians have an obsession with cleaning,” she says. “We have a rotation and my day is Tuesday. In Chicago I couldn’t even make cereal. Now I’m learning how to cook all sorts of different types of Thai food.”

An Uncertain Future

Raising a young child in a prison like Kerobokan – where infants are allowed to spend the first two years of their lives with their incarcerated mothers – is fraught with daily challenges. In recent weeks, Mack has been frantic to get treatment for the large abscess that appeared on Stella’s arm. After several visits to the prison clinic and a local hospital, a physician diagnosed the infection as a reaction to the child’s recent tuberculosis vaccination.

“I was having a panic attack for weeks,” Mack says. “It was scary. I’d never seen anything like it before, but the doctors all said it was a natural reaction. I’m cleaning it three times a day now.”

Stella is the youngest resident of the prison now that another inmate with a young child, who’d been arrested for murder, was freed. And when the toddler isn’t napping, the mother and daughter can often be seen sitting together in the grassy courtyard in their cellblock. “She’s learning to crawl now and it’s so scary to watch,” says Mack. “She rocks back and forth and I’m so worried she’s going to fall on her head.”

Exactly what will happen in a year and a half when Mack will no longer be allowed to keep Stella with her at the prison has yet to be determined. “I’m not sure where she will go,” says Mack, who is desperate to find a way to keep the child near Kerobokan so the two can remain in contact. “I don’t know how I will ever survive without her.”

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