Raphael Rowe: There will always be a volume of prisoners who don't like us, or don't like what we are doing
Having spent 12 years wrongfully convicted in a maximum security prison in the UK, Raphael Rowe has learned how to fight for himself not just physically, but mentally and legally as well. After the court set him free, he became a successful reporter at the BBC. Now he is back behind bars again -this time with a camera crew, hosting one of Netflix’s popular documentary series, Inside the World’s Thoughest Prisons, where he stays with the inmates for days, exposes himself to danger to show the everyday life of prisoners and guards around the world. This interview is available in hungarian for our subscribers.
Coming out of prison as a journalist is not something you often hear. Why did you choose to study journalism?
When I was in prison, serving time for the crime I did not commit, the media played a significant role in portraying me as a murderer and a robber and a bad person. And I know that that portrayal of me played a significant part in my conviction despite the evidence that would have acquitted most people. We were able to appeal against that conviction after 3 years but that got rejected so I thought that the only way of fighting my conviction was to get the general public on my side. I knew that I couldn't do that from the confinement of my prison cell, but the media could. So if i could get the media interested in questioning the safety of my conviction, i could get my voice heard on the outside. That's why I embarked on a media course, to understand how the media works, and use it to make people aware of my case.
After your release, how did you find a job as a journalist?
I was fortunate because less than a year after I came out of prison, I had a job. I made lots of interesting contacts while i was in prison, and when i came out I reached out to some of them. One of these individuals invited me to the BBC center in London. I was given a tour in the building, and during that tour I met a man who was then the editor of BBC’s most influential radio station, on Radio 4. He gave me a job, without an official interview or application. I got my first job working for the most influential radio show in the UK, even the royal family listens to it!
Prison time tends to be a stigma in the eye of society. How did you cope with that?
It's a stigma in the eyes of those who want it to be a stigma. I advocate to flip that in your head and embrace the fact that you’ve spent time in prison. And embrace the fact that you have been able to turn your life around if you are a guilty person. You take the opportunity to find employment, embrace your identity so rather than be stigmatised, you don't try to hide, you show people that you have the enthusiasm and the drive to turn your life around. Secondly the skill set you obtain in prison can be useful. Lots of prisoners could be quite entrepreneurial, so instead of, let’s say, importing cocaine and selling it on the streets one could import jam and sell it in shops. So my advice is don’t hide, embrace your past! It won’t work everywhere, there will be people who don’t want to employ ex-cons, but that’s really who they are, ex-cons, former prisoners, they are not that person anymore. And they sould be given a second chance.
Was this your approach from the beginning?
Yes. I used my skills that I obtained during that time. I was fighting my wrongful conviction to become a journalist. I give you an example: When I was on an assignment working with an academic journalist, who got their degrees in media studies in a university, they came with that experience, and I came with my life experiences. So in the line of work if we came up against a brick wall and the brick wall said we can’t go beyond, I would climb over the wall to look for evidence while the academic would knock on the door. I felt it was more important to go over the wall because otherwise we would not get the evidence. Your skillset from experiences in life - even if it comes from prison - can be used in the right way, they can benefit society.
What do you consider your most useful skills?
I think the most useful one is about believing in something, so nothing can steer you away. As a journalist I listen to a lot of lies even though I already know the truth, and I search for the evidence. If you are looking to interview somebody, it is okay to ask. It is okay to pick up the phone and ask the prime minister or the local shopkeeper. For me, it’s “know your subject, search your subject”. I need to know everything possible so i can make the right decisions. When i went to prison, i knew nothing about the law, i knew nothing about evidence, nothing about how these cases are put together. How the criminal justice system worked, but I learned.
Raphael Rowe in Brasil / Photo: Raphael Rowe
Another useful skill from prison came from the fact that I was being held in maximum security prison. Many of the prisoners were very manipulative, dangerous, and i have to say, very sad. They came in all shapes and sizes. And their minds worked in very different ways. So in the 12 years I interacted with these men and I got to know how their mindset worked to avoid danger. Of course I had physical contact with other prisoners in order to defend myself from the violence that happens in a maximum security prison. I learnt how to deal with men who would come at me and want to cause me physical harm, and how to diffuse a situation.
Have you ever had to use it as a journalist?
When I was in Sierra Leone, I was undercover pretending to be a diamond dealer. People in the local area had learned that there is a westerner who buys diamonds and has a lot of money. I was staying in a little rundown motel in the diamond district. Word got out, I was alone in my room, when I heard a loud bang on the door. I opened it, and 2 people were there threatening me, and they wanted my money. But I've been in that situation in prison, when the other prisoners came to my cell and they came at me with aggression and a threat of violence. I used the same skill, i showed no fear, i showed them that i was not intimidated by them.
And I would not suggest people would do this without being able to read the situation. I'm not an expert but i learned how to react. Nobody got harmed, they did not get the money, but shortly after me and my colleagues were on an old russian helicopter fleeing Freetown. I faced the same situation in the series i'm doing for Netflix. I visited a prison in Colombia, where the first thing my cellmates did was threaten to stab me if I didn't pay them. But I stood up, because I knew, I sensed that they would not hurt me - but I don't recommend this to people who don't have any experience reading this kind of situation.
After spending so much time in prison, why did you agree to do it again, even if it was for Netflix?
Well, the short answer is that I can walk out anytime i want! (Laughs). But I think it's important that we educate people about what really goes on in prison and what those prisons like in different countries and different cultures, what resources do they have or don't have. What goes on in a prison is a reflection of how the governments of those countries treat society. Prisons are often full of people that come from a poor background. There are lots of prisoners who have committed horrendous crimes, but the majority are from disproportionately poor backgrounds. That's not an excuse, i know! Lots of people with the same background don’t commit crimes, but these prisons are full of people who are vulnerable, and i think how you treat these people is the really important question here.
In a ring of inmates / Photo: Raphael Rowe
But that can lead to portraying them as innocent people
It’s not me glorifying them, it's not a platform to brag, or me giving a rapist a platform to say sorry. I just speak to people and try to find out who they are, what they are doing and why they are there. I have two goals with this show: First, to find out what prisons are like around the world and share that information. Secondly to start a discussion with people about what they thought prison was like and whether they think their country is treating prisoners right or wrong. Other countries could compare, like the brazilian people can see how their prison system runs compared to the norwegian system.
How did you or your producers convince the authorities to let you in and film? Sometimes the conditions are shockingly poor and I’m sure they are not proud of it
I think it is about honesty. It's about being non-judgemental, but it's not easy to convince the authorities to let you in. When i did the first season in Brazil and Belize, it was a challenge, because the authorities did not want to embarrass themselves, to let the people see what they were trying to hide. They finally bought into what we are trying to do - just me, going in, and letting things unfold. Of course, there is a format, like how I get into the prison, try to get a job inside and live like a prisoner, experience life for a short period. But they are buying into the idea because i’m not going in to judge the system and it also gives them a platform to show what kind of resources they have. It is also an opportunity for the people to see what kind of individuals are in prison. But yes, sometimes it's surprising even for us that they let us in! They are more open once they get it that I'm not trying to paint a particular picture.
How much protection does it mean to have a crew with you?
Most of the crew that I work with has never been to prison. They are scared but excited at the same time. We don't have special protection inside the prison. I have 2 camera people, a soundman and depending on the country we are filming in, a translator. The prisons don't provide us security, usually they send one man to stand at the cell door, and let us in or out when needed.
Do you have a strategy when you are meeting the prisoners for the first time?
It comes down to me building trust in the prisoners, and I'm trying to do it immediately. That's why I tend to move away from the cameras and try to build up a rapport with the prisoners as much as i can before we start shooting. Sometimes a part of the production team goes in the prison days before I arrive, to check out the lay of the land and not waste time.
Photo: Raphael Rowe
We have requirements, for example, if I'm staying in a cell and the prisoners in that cell start to use drugs that can alter their personality, that can put my life in danger, we do require that the authorities have a guard standby to release me from that cell. And i just can hope that the guard assigned to that task is really there, because i have been to a situation like this
Did the guard come?
No, they didn't ! I was filming in Papua New-Guinea and I was in a dormitory conducting an interview with one of the prisoners. That particular prisoner was in for more than 13 years, for killing a witch doctor, he was on a death row and was due to be executed. Behind me a fight had broken out. The dormitory’s door was locked. My experience with these fights from my prison years is that they can escalate really quickly. I did not know at that time if the fight that had broken out had anything to do with my presence. Sometimes prisoners can get a little jealous of the fact that i'm interviewing someone else and not them. In this particular fight there was no way that me or my cameraman could get out of the dormitory because the fight started right at the door and we could not get through. Luckily, the man i was interviewing very calmly stood up, walked to where the fight was - we were getting really nervous at that point - talked to the guys and diffused the situation. They dispersed. He came back and said we can continue now.
Do you prepare your crew for what to expect?
I try to give them some advice in the hotel before we go in, these are very simple ones, like always keep your back against the wall. If you are entering a room, or a cell, you are vulnerable from behind. I know, that's not always possible, but you have to try and avoid this. They must be aware that after two or three days prisoners will be more relaxed around us, but they must never drop their guard, because these prisoners can be very manipulative and we don't know what’s going on in the background. If you are giving attention to one group, another group will be envious of that, and it can start rumors circling in the prison which can put everyone in danger. You have to be inclusive, be friendly with everybody even if you dont interview them. Never dismiss anybody, keep your ears open to the conversations other prisoners are having.
When i was in brazil and i was talking to a prisoner about his experiences there were another 2-3 prisoners outside his cell. I was trying to read their body language, and that body language was giving off signs that they were not happy. I was nudging my crew and saying to them that these guys behind us are not happy and I have the feeling that something is going on. They said “oh, its okay” but i told them that no, its not, and what we need to do very quickly is to involve them in the film because this can escalate very quickly, they could have made other prisoners not happy too. Especially in Brazil, where prison riotings are common, beheading people comes naturally, you don’t want to take chances on that - and in that case the prisoners i was interviewing were involved in decapitating gang members. Fortunately it diffused the situation.
Other example: One of the prisons i filmed in recently I was interviewing a guy in the recreational area, where they can play snooker, and out of nowhere an individual showed up. He’s face was full of blood, he grabbed one of the snooker balls, and he threw that to the head of my cameraman. Fortunately the camera on his shoulder protected his head. Had the camera been on the other side, his jaw would have been shattered. Prisons are unpredictable. Some prisoners might try to make a name for themselves and try to kidnap you, hold you hostage, or murder you. There will always be a volume of prisoners who don't like us, don't like what we are doing.
So it means that other seasons are coming to Netflix? When?
Season 4 is coming out on the 29th of July, 2020, and it will feature me inside the prisons of Paraguay, Germany, Lesotho and Mauritius.
You can read this interview in Hungarian in the latest digital issue of Kreativ - click here to sign in!