Inside the World's Toughest Prisons

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
January 19, 2023

Inside the World's Toughest Prisons is a documentary series available on Netflix, with seasons 2-6 being hosted by RRF founder Raphael Rowe. Raphael travels the world, experiencing life behind bars in many different environments with people from all walks of life. The series is thought provoking and really inspires people to think differently about incarceration by showing a variety of prisons and their individual systems alongside the prisoners themselves. What really stands out about the series is how representative it is of every faucet of prison life, even exploring the roles of the guards and prison directors in a truly unique demonstration of reality, which needs to be seen more often in the media.


All of the different countries and environments that the series is filmed in lends itself to accurately displaying life for men in prisons across the globe. Living conditions range from relatively nice, as seen in Norway season 3, episode 4, to abhorrent conditions as seen in Paraguay, season 4, episode 1. Whether the living conditions are good or bad, they are at the end of the day, still prisons. Prisoners sentenced for a range of offences, from petty crimes, to the most heinous, feature throughout the whole series. Prisoners are given the opportunity to feature on the series, not to glorify their crimes, but to display what kind of prisoners are incarcerated and learn a bit about them, their countries prison system and the environment they are kept locked up in. To me, one of the best things about the series overall is the fact that the prisons and prisoners are not sensationalised, which is really important when trying to accurately display prison life to viewers. 

The aspect of seeing the past crime and the people who committed them is equally important, especially when considering the impact on viewers. A particular episode (season 6, episode 1), where Raphael goes in to Rezina prison in Moldova, without giving too many spoilers away, is presented and produced really well to highlight this. At the start of the episode, we meet Lilian and learn about his life in prison, which is frankly oppressive and very tough to survive in. I’m sure that viewers, myself included, felt sympathy for the conditions that Lilian and the other prisoners at Rezina were living in. Then, later in the episode we learn that Lilian is in prison for double murder, this hits Raphael like it did viewers and you can see that he is visibly taken aback and actually has to step out of the cell. A man he has been living in a cell with, eating, drinking and sleeping with, even singing karaoke with, is capable of such horrific crimes. This episode shows how one’s perception can change in a matter of seconds and is an extraordinary eye opener to the reality that underneath the conviction, is a person.

Raphael’s delivery really makes the series what it is, his personal experiences as a wrongfully convicted prisoner in the United Kingdom makes him the perfect person to present this series. He has a deeper understanding of what it means to be in prison, the institutions that house them and the individuals that inhabit them. Raphael also has a unique and honest way of integrating himself in to every prison environment with the inmates, always leading with calm and respect.  It certainly takes a great deal of bravery and determination to put yourself in to these dangerous situations but Raphael knows how important the issues raised in the series are and the Raphael Rowe Foundation continues to champion the rethinking, re-humanisation and reintegration of prisoners all around the world. 

Seeing a multitude of prison conditions around the world, has been an eye opener for many people. The positive impact that the series has had on public perceptions is astounding and has inspired people all around the world to get involved with their own criminal justice systems. Viewers often contact Raphael with positive messages of support after watching the show:

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