15 Sep 2019

Raphael Rowe: Inside the World's Toughest Prisons

From Sunday Morning, 10:07 am on 15 September 2019

Raphael Rowe spent 12 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit before a second appeal against his conviction finally succeeded. And now he's heading back to prison in his role as the host of Inside the World's Toughest Prisons.

He goes to prisons around the world and enters them as a voluntary inmate, often putting him in rather hairy situations while filming the documentary series hosted on Netflix.

Now working as an investigative journalist, and well known for his work with BBC’s Panorama, Rowe told Jim Mora that it wasn’t an easy decision to re-enter prisons but it was an opportunity to shed light for the people who are not privy to what goes on behind the bars.

“Even now, when I go into a prison and I start to film, I almost go back into that frame of mind where I become the prisoner.

“[When] I’m being driven to the prison [for the series]– my mentality, my psyche, my frame of mind moves to my past experience of being in a van for real going to prison for a crime I didn’t commit.

“So I move into that mindset and I take on that persona and it helps get me through and navigate my way in the prison and it brings me closer to the prisoners and the guards because there is a rapport there - that makes all the difference.”

He says he has let go of most of the bitterness from his time in prison, and yet there will always be a bit of it that eats away at him, he just tries to not let it consume him.

“I’ve been very fortunate or lucky or I was in the right place at the right time and I took my chance and became a journalist and I was distracted by my career to work on crime and justice and social issues that have helped me channel all that anger, all of that 12 years of suffering, into something that is I think important … working on stories that I think make a difference.

“And if you can use your own pain, like I have, to make people to think differently about something … then it’s a good thing.”

The inmate and the journalist

During his time inside for the series, Rowe puts himself in the position of the other inmates. He says he tries to talk to some of the other prisoners to find out what others probably never have about them.

“I kind of a find a level with them and say ‘look, I’m just like you, I’m not here to judge, I’m not here to question, only I want you to share your personal experiences’, so I think that they take to me.

“Many of these dangerous guys never get asked the simple questions that I asked them about their own life, about their own experience, about what it’s like being in prison, and what the future holds to them. Sometimes it’s just the conversation that kind of softens the toughness.”

In interviews with the prisoners, he sometimes reveals to them that he too was in prison. Some are shocked, but some pick it up from his demeanour.

While filming he does have a crew with him, but the guards aren’t always around, prompting some rather dangerous situations. In one case at Bogota District Prison in Colombia, he says he was held up in a cell by two inmates threatening him to pay up or “suffer the consequences”.

“I said, ‘what’s the consequences?’ and they said, ‘physical consequences’, and I kind of put up my fists and I said, ‘well I’ve got these’ and they said ‘they’ll do no good because we use knives’ and it was frightening, really frightening.

“But I knew that if I stood my ground, I would earn a little bit of respect … it is very important that I build a rapport with these guys, especially when they’re threatening me.”

There is fear deep down, he says, but he manages to mask it by looking them in the eye and they usually back down because in the end they’re scared too.

“As dangerous as they are, they’re only individuals who can be hurt if two or three set upon them, so I can kind of understand these prisoners … because I lived with them for such a long time and I met the biggest, the baddest, the ugliest, the smoothest, the manipulative, I met them all. So I kind of know how to deal with them to a certain extent and that’s got me through.”

He also visited a prison in Brazil, which he says was probably one of the most ruthless.

“I was talking to mean guys and I saw things I wish I’d never seen. These were gang members who decapitated other gang rivals and, you know, play football with their heads, and I was talking to these guys that had committed those horrific crimes.”

However, he says there’s not one prison he can particularly single out as being “the toughest” because they’re all threatening for different reasons.

“[In] Ukraine, it was like this old gulag that was so eerie, it was so scary because it was empty, it was noiseless, it was frightening for that reason, it just felt so oppressive. All of these prisons are tough for different reasons.”

Rehabilitation and relationships

Rowe also got the opportunity to visit Norway’s maximum security Halden Prison, often named ‘the most humane’ in the world. The country is also known for having one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

The prison has caught attention globally for its design which allows for no bars on windows, and privileges in the cells like furniture, fridges and television.

“Their approach is about humanising prisoners and making things normal so that they don’t go to prison and behave like an animal and continue to perpetrate the same problem they were committing on the outside,” Rowe says.

It’s not just the investment in resources that’s enabled Norway to get ahead, Rowe says, but the effort made in building relationships between the staff, guards and inmates.

“It made me feel uncomfortable because in my time [in prison in the UK] there was no relationship between prisoners and prison guards, it was 'them and us', that’s how most prisons operate.

“But [in] Halden … it’s the way they treat their prisoners - the resources, the training, the education, the therapy they provide to prisoners with purpose that’s really making a difference.”

He says some might argue that such a system would only work in certain places without the gang culture but he believes it’s not impossible to replicate similar approaches elsewhere, it would however require a major mind shift.

“We’re dealing with human beings and some of these human beings may have come from very deprived backgrounds, they come from troubled childhoods or they may just be criminally minded where thieving money or hurting people is all they know or want to do. So there is that few that you will never reach, but I think the majority can be reached, you can make a difference.

“But the governments, the ministries of justice, the directors of prisons, all have to buy into it but most importantly, and this is the key, the public have buy into it.

“They want to know the people who go to prison can be rehabilitated. It really does require everybody’s buying into it.”

Penal populism

Being tough on crime has also elevated in the ranks of popular options to combat offending, but Rowe says that narrative must change if people want lower recidivism.

“The politics and the media’s constant sabotage of anything that really can make a difference is shameful and I say that because I think the amount of money we spend on rehabilitation or recidivism, the revolving door of crime, we’re talking billions … it’s not that hard to get into our system and spend that money on changing the mindset. But as you say, it’s a vote-winner.”

On the other hand, Rowe says he still believes in the purpose and presence of prisons.

“I’m not an advocate that prisons should be done away with. I still think prisons need to be there to serve the purpose that they do, especially for those who deserve to be confined in prison - it’s what you do with them once they’re in there and that’s where we fail miserably around the world.”