From life imprisonment to Netflix: A conversation with Raphael Rowe, the host of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons

In 1988, at 20 years old, Raphael was sentenced to life imprisonment in the United Kingdom for a crime he didn’t commit. He was put in an adult prison while most prisoners at his age group are placed in specific institutes for young offenders; later, Raphael was sent to a maximum security and remained imprisoned for 12 years – among which he studied Journalism by correspondence. Finally, the wrongful convictions were annulled in 2000. He was released and reintegrated into a society that already used cell phones.

Photo: Amit&Naroop

Today, he’s a motivational speaker and travels the world addressing the most diverse realities through news reports.

In Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, from Netflix, Raphael presents the prison system’s reality from prisoners’ perspective in Brazil, Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, Belize, Costa Rica, Colombia, Romania and Norway. At each episode, the closed system’s plurality is documented in several interviews: tension due to criminal factions, unsanitary conditions, complex logistics. Even the taste of food prepared in the cafeterias. Audience success, the series is in the fourth season.

Why do so many people like to watch crime related productions that approach judicial and prison systems?

Raphael Rowe: Firstly, prisons are secretive; 99.9% of the population has no contact or dealings with prisons. This majority sees them as a secret world where people are locked up behind these walls, these closed doors. We hear about what goes on in these places, but very rarely do we go inside to see. Secondly, I think most of the population around the world leads everyday lives; they go to work, they may become a victim of a crime or they may be aware of somebody who has become a victim, but they rarely get in touch with criminals or the criminal world, unless they live in those communities where it’s happening on a daily basis. People can be fascinated with how, when and why criminals do what they do. The third reason is the media; it plays a significant role showing news reports about crimes, victims of crimes and the fear of crime on a daily basis. So we constantly regurgitate the dangers of criminality – and I think it’s used by politicians as a tool of social control. Therefore, there’s mystery and people are curious. Finally, we are safe and comfortable in our room watching a film or a documentary about prisons, and you feel ‘I’m glad that it wasn’t me.

The decision to embark on this journey with Netflix certainly wasn’t easy…

Raphael Rowe: I decided that I was going to open the gates of prisons around the world for international audiences so they could get a real insight to what life is really like inside prisons. For prisoners, for prison staff, for families and anybody that is involved in the prison systems around the world.

However, after so many years wrongfully imprisoned, investigating the world’s worst prisons also meant revisiting his memories.

Raphael Rowe: They asked me to be a prisoner and that would invoke some serious memories about my own time, which wasn’t of nice experiences. But I thought it was important that someone like me, who has the knowledge and the experience, did the job. So although I was hesitant because I didn’t know how emotionally that would be challenging for me and I didn’t know how I’d cope dealing with having to spend the night in the prison again, I thought that the impact of educating people around the world was more important.

This is how Raphael took on the mission, along with its dangers.

Raphael Rowe: Despite the fact that I had experienced being a prisoner and going to prisons working as a journalist, it was still quite challenging, dangerous and quite fearful as prisoners are unpredictable. Brazilian prisons, for instance, have a reputation of being violent. People have died. You are hesitant on going to these places. But deep down I knew my mission was to go in and find out from prisoners and guards what life was really like.

And he talks about shooting the episodes…

Raphael Rowe: There was always a risk of unpredictability, and it brings about a danger, a fear. Because we had cameras, we were less likely to be victims of anything, but equally we were aware that we could become victims; the prisoners might see an opportunity to use us in some way to ask for better conditions or whatever they want; more resources, the lack or resources, the violence. So we were always aware of that, accompanied by a guard, and making sure things were safe for us to operate.

I ask if he had any problems during some of the interviews.

Raphael Rowe: At no time can I remember being threatened by a prisoner. There were small questions in Ukraine when some prisoners (working in the kitchen) didn’t like the way I was questioning the taste of their food, and a moment like that quite easily turns into a dangerous moment, thankfully it didn’t.

That’s because Raphael always comes naturally; his dialogues with each inmate inspire confidence and an unexpected proximity. Soon, we listen to the deepest confessions, full of different shades. Reasoning, reactions. Even fragments of a different kind of silence – a silence that reflects each life story.

Raphael Rowe: It wasn’t about going there and painting a misleading picture. I built a record with prisoners. They felt my honesty and genuineness; the empathy and sympathy I had for their situation. And balanced with questions about the level of security guards had to deal on a daily basis. So my real and genuine approach is what made the dangerous less dangerous and less fearful, because I wasn’t trying to paint a picture that wasn’t real.

He highlights the importance of not antagonizing anyone.

Raphael Rowe: Those 12 years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit created the character that I am today. Empathy, sympathy, no judgment. Understanding or trying to understand. And just recognizing that there are many, many different reasons why people do what they do. This comprehension provided me with tools as a journalist to go in there and not be a threat to anyone. If people don’t see you as a threat, they are more inclined to communicate with you, to open up and share their experience. Even some of the most dangerous ruthless individuals that I met, I treated them as human beings, in the way their family or friends would, because my interest was genuine.

At Porto Velho penitentiary in Rondônia, north of Brazil, some inmates shared tragic reports and also laughed with the journalist. They wanted to know his story, intrigued by the wrongful conviction for robbery and murder in the late 1980s. One of them asked if Raphael had thought about committing suicide while imprisoned for more than a decade.

Raphael Rowe: My answer was that I never for one moment thought about it, because there were people outside who loved me and cared about me. I knew it, and it gave me strength. I knew that I was innocent, and to kill myself, to take my own life would have been to give up on those people. And to have given up on what is more important than me, more important than them, and that’s justice. Justice overrides anything and everything; we all have it deep in our own hearts and it drives us. So even when you find yourself in the darkest corner, under the darkest circumstances, if you know there is something that can take you out of that corner, then you have something to live for – and for me, it was hope and justice.

I get closer to his personal story and wonder how he survived so young in such a hostile environment – and for so many years. So he tells me about his origins, when reality was already hard.

Raphael Rowe: The environment I grew in created an individual who wasn’t immune to difficulties brought by life and poverty.

After being wrongfully arrested, this commitment to survival became urgent.

Raphael Rowe: I was put into maximum security prison, which are the toughest in England. So being in that environment toughed me up, both externally and internally. I had to; even if I wasn’t tough for real, I had to pretend I was tough. Prepare to take a stand, to protect myself against threats. I had to look after myself physically in order to give off this aura that ‘if you mess with me, I’ll be prepared to fight to protect myself’. But most importantly, I had to build emotional strength, and also recognize that all those dangerous men around me, and the threat from the guards, they were just human beings. And I had to find a way of communicating with them, getting on with them, understanding the threat when I saw it. So, yes, I carry that physical and emotional courage with me; it shaped the person that I am today”.

And what is he like today?

Raphael Rowe: I don’t judge and I don’t go into situations naively.

I ask how Journalism came into his life.

Raphael Rowe: I studied Journalism while I was in prison to use it to highlight my own predicament, and then I went on using it to highlight other people’s situations; situations in countries around the world: corrupt governments, legality, criminality, whatever it is.

And Raphael goes beyond the news; he wants to help people in desperate conditions to find a way out.

Raphael Rowe: When you’re so bitter and so frustrated by the wrong that has been done to you, you can go either way. You can turn to drugs and drink and bury yourself in sorrow, or you can use that anger, bitterness and frustration like I did. Make yourself a better person and help others make themselves better people. Share your experience, your knowledge.

At the end of our conversation, Raphael talks about his inspiration and reasons, almost too hard to fit into words. But he chooses them, confidently, and conveys exactly what it takes to understand him.

Raphael Rowe: Our insights can motivate other people. I didn’t know about it when I was fighting my own fight; only after so many years I realised that my experience and journey had helped other people realise that they can overcome some of their own difficulties, which may be worse than what I went through or may not be as bad, but they look at me and think: ‘if he can, I can’. And that encourages me as a journalist. I found a purpose, I think that’s what other people get from my journey – a purpose. And I do hope that anyone in a difficult situation like the one I found myself in knows one thing. It may be imprisonment for a crime you didn’t commit, or a situation where you feel angry, bitter about – something that has happened to you, or even just frustration because you’re stuck and can’t get out of a job situation. You need to know that every year your life can change, and I describe it like this because when I was 20 years old, Clara, I was sitting at a prison cell, thinking that I would spend the rest of my life there, without ever being released.