RAPHAEL Rowe served 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Now, for a new Netflix documentary series, called Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons, the TV presenter and journalist experiences the brutal conditions prisoners face in countries like Brazil and Ukraine. Georgia Humphreys spoke to him.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE EXPECT FROM THESE EPISODES?
An insight into some of the, if not the, toughest prisons in the world, and looking at the conditions and types of prisoners that you find, the crimes they’ve committed, and the punishments they’ve received. The programmes are about me taking on the persona of a prisoner for seven days in each one.
WITH WHAT YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED, WHY DID YOU PUT YOURSELF THROUGH THAT?
It wasn’t an easy ask for me to go back into these prisons, having spent 12 years of my life fighting to get out of them, as an innocent man. But I thought it was important I brought credibility and authenticity to these programmes, where I could explore some of the most pressing issues around the world, about how we deal with prisoners and the punishment, what works, what doesn’t.
HOW DID YOU MENTALLY PREPARE?
By taking each moment as it came. I didn’t know, really, what to expect. Each prison I walked into had a different feel about it. Although we have a format to the programme, we didn’t have a set plan on who we would interview and who we would meet, and how they would respond to us, because, apart from the guards that provided us with some security, we didn’t take a team of security people with us.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING SO OPEN WITH THE PRISONERS AND TELLING THEM YOUR STORY?
There were times when it was quite crucial that the team I was working with didn’t reveal to the prisoners, ahead of me going in, that I was an ex-prisoner myself, so that they would talk to me as if I was a novice. Therefore, they would try to educate me about what life was like and then, those that did know or found out during those conversations, it resonated with them that I had some empathy, some understanding of what it is like to be locked up and what experiences you go through and the things you witness.
WHAT’S THE MOST SHOCKING THING THAT HAS STAYED WITH YOU?
It’s hard to pick one, but I think key was the conditions. In some of these prisons, they are so grim, they’re so appalling, it’s harrowing to think that human beings are kept in these conditions. These guys slept on concrete slabs, with no blankets, no mattress, nothing to lay on, so that, in itself, was hard. And I’m not talking about for days — I’m talking about for weeks, and months and, for many, in places like Papua New Guinea, for years, they can be sleeping on just concrete floors. And then there is this constant use of drugs and violence. It was always a threat.
WERE THERE MOMENTS WHEN YOU THOUGHT ‘I CAN’T HANDLE THIS’?
There were times when I just wanted to get out. The conditions — the overwhelming heat, the smell, the lack of food, and all those things — there were times, especially when I was hearing the harrowing stories of the murders they committed or the rapes they committed or the crimes they had witnessed in prison, and also the threat, that was not directed at us, but there was always an element of intimidation from some prisoners, who didn’t want to engage in what we were doing.
HAVE YOU FORGIVEN THE PEOPLE WHO WRONGLY IMPRISONED YOU?
I don’t necessarily forgive those who were directly involved in knowing that I was innocent and yet still went ahead and fitted me into the crime. But I don’t carry that bitterness with me, or I wouldn’t have been able to survive on the outside. I did 12 years inside and I was bitter and twisted during that time, but, since I’ve come out, I’ve tried to show that you can still be a success, still make something of your life.
Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons launches on Netflix on July 6.