Inmates training in makeshift gym from Netflix's 'Inside The World's Toughest Prisons'
Costa Rican inmates training in makeshift gym with plastic bottles as weights from Netflix's 'Inside The World's Toughest Prisons'Courtesy of Netflix

Lessons From ‘Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons’: Grit, Isolation, and Ingenuity

Raphael Rowe was wrongfully charged with murder and sentenced to life in a maximum security prison at the age of 20. During his time in a 9-foot by 6-foot cell, physical activity and meditation were the only escapes from confinement.

“It was key to my survival that I did everything possible to stay fit,” Rowe tells Men’s Journal from his home outside London. “As the days passed, convicted for crimes I didn’t commit, the only way to purge the anger was intense exercise.”

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The convictions against Rowe were eventually overturned, but not before he spent 12 years of his adult life behind bars. Once free, he focused his energy on a career in investigative journalism. Following a successful run with the BBC, he moved to a subject close to home, exploring the humanity among prisoners in a docuseries called Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons for Netflix.

Rowe spoke with Men’s Journal about the lessons he learned while locked up, changing the prisoner narrative, and dealing with isolation.

Can you describe your surroundings in prison after the conviction?

Being a 20-year-old man at the time before I went into prison, I was on the fringes, smoking and drinking. I did some sports training. I studied taekwondo. But once I got locked up, working out became absolutely vital. Due to the severity of the crimes they charged me with, I was put in a cage within a cage. Being in a maximum security prison meant I was on my own for the most part, isolated for 23 hours a day. For one hour they moved me to a larger wired cage, about 20-foot by 20-foot, where the other prisoners would look in. In their minds I was the most “dangerous.” I had virtually no interaction with other human beings during that time. When they moved me, I was escorted by two prison guards. There were CCTV cameras everywhere.

How did you initially cope with those extreme circumstances?

I started to meditate. It was completely out of necessity to combat the overwhelming isolation. I got deeper and deeper into it. There were days where I could spend two to four hours in a meditation pose, going in and out of the meditative state. For the first two years, when I was dealing with a harder environment, meditating was a daily religious practice. Not long after I got there, I started to do a lot of in-cell exercise. I was doing so many pushups and situps you couldn’t count. A great situp can take you far. So can a good squat—weighted or not—as long as you do enough of them. I was a machine, and it was that movement that allowed me to push on mentally.

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Did you create training regimens in prison?

Every day without fail I would go out into the exercise yard and do laps, no matter what the weather was. It could be rain, sleet, or snow. I was going to get out there. Sometimes the runs would be jogs, sometimes they would be sprinting with absolute force. I was able to run marathons during that time, all within our exercise yard. I also built regimes. I would basically do the same program every week, but mix up the days. One day would be all bodyweight exercises, then maybe the next would be football movements. I eventually got access to gym equipment after being assigned to be a gym orderly. It’s a pretty sought-after position. They gave it to me because I refused to sweep, mop, or sew. I was an innocent man, so I resisted the system. Authorities realized they could beat me, but they couldn’t beat my spirit. In the end, they buckled and gave me what I wanted.

Raphael Rowe, host of Netflix's 'Inside The World's Toughest Prisons'
Raphael Rowe, host of Netflix’s ‘Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons’ Courtesy of Netflix

What were the benefits of that position?

I had access to the weights and the facilities. I also had the opportunity to start working out with the other guys. Even though we had weights, we still had to be inventive in the yard. I remember we would do step drills with six guys lying face down on the ground with their legs spread out, and we’d quick-step between them. I eventually started to work with other guys who were struggling both mentally and physically, putting them through programs. I captained the teams of most of the sports. I participated because I had that motivation.

Did you have resources as far as learning new programs?

There wasn’t any access to the internet. They had orderlies in the gym, but most of them weren’t coming to the table with a whole lot of knowledge. A few were passionate about bodybuilding, but that’s not the kind of training I was looking for. My parents sent me a football training manual, but it was repetitive. One of my favorite books was a yoga manual called The Joy of Sex. It was my bible for a time. I spent hours seeing what positions I could get into. Being so confined, the ability to be mobile was more important than most things.

Did those training sessions ever get violent?

Being in the gym was a privilege, so the tone was primarily one of absolute focus, but on occasion it would get strange or dangerous. I witnessed someone hit another with weights or a bar. I’ve seen a guy drop a barbell on another man’s neck out of frustration. There’s a lot of testosterone going around in a space filled with some very dangerous individuals.

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How did you end up hosting Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons?

I was ending my time at the BBC when I heard this program about the world’s toughest prisons being put together for Netflix. They approached me. I had to think long and hard whether I wanted to be involved. I’d done a few documentaries on prisons, but for this show I had to spend a whole week inside of a prison with inmates, which is a completely different animal. Doing that willingly, especially with my previous experience, was not an easy decision. There were a lot of conversations leading up to it, because even just considering the title, it could be seen as sensationalized. I wanted to make sure that was not going to be the case. In the end, this series is an opportunity for me to change the narrative a bit. I’m quite passionate about changing people’s perceptions of prisoners. Prison is just the structure, it’s the people on both sides of the bars who make the system work or not.

What kind of impact does a fitness program have on prisoners?

There’s a clear contrast between prisons that have programs around physical and mental wellness and those that don’t. The ability to look after oneself is massive, and can prevent prisoners from focusing too much on one another for that physical challenge. Working out creates a more passive prisoner. Training is a time for self-discovery. There’s a hesitation to discuss anything personal, because you might come off as weak, but these guys need it more than most. Everyone has this picture of prisoners being violent machines, but there are just as many guys in there who are completely vulnerable and exposed. That’s why they end up in prison in the first place.

Can you give an example of the gold standard of prisons?

In Germany the whole ethos is about recovery and reflection on behavior. They work hard to get people to see the reasons they’ve become violent. In contrast, there are places like Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica where there’s absolutely no effort put into rehabilitation. These places would kill for just a piece of the gear in places like Germany as far as wellness. It would do immense good for them. There’s nothing in those prisons to distract them from the daily rub of getting by and trying to survive—or how to smuggle in drugs.

What’s the most impressive piece of improvised gym equipment you’ve seen?

I was most impressed by the Costa Rican inmates who used plastic containers and soda bottles filled with water for weights. They tied them to a “bar” of wood with bits of string and torn T-shirts. They found a tiny space in a corner that wasn’t being used, and turned it into a gym. I had an opportunity to try their water bottles out, and the prisoners were impressed I was able to handle the weight. I’m not a big guy, but I have the inner strength that pushes through moments of challenge. It’s largely mental. In other places, I’ve seen guys use bed frames as a bench press. They’ll also use each other. One guy lies on a beds while someone else lies down across him. People can be very creative given the circumstances.

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Even with your past experience, did you find yourself unnerved by some scenarios on the show?

I don’t like to say what place I think is the most dangerous or what’s the “roughest” prison in the world, but there was a certain feeling I got when walking into the facilities in Brazil. That’s because of the nature of the crimes they’re in there for. Some of these gang members chopped the heads off fellow inmates and played soccer with them. I was in that compound talking with guys who either saw or participated in those actions. I don’t make it a point to share my history with the prisoners, but sometimes they can sense it. Because of the crimes I was accused of, the door opens a little wider for me than a person off the street. Those Brazilian inmates started to interrogate me on who I was. One of them asked if I ever thought about killing myself. I said those thoughts just made me stronger. They were calling me their brother by the end of it. I also know how to conduct myself around criminals. I know when someone isn’t going to deal well with eye contact, and when I need to stand up for myself. One situation I felt uncomfortable and out of my element in was this latest season in South Africa. Being in there and going through the initiation process from The Numbers Gang, one of the most infamous in the world, was intimidating. Let’s be honest, one of these guys could flip even if there are cameras around, because they just want their 15 minutes of fame. I have to be careful in how I conduct myself.

How did that time inside make you appreciate your freedom?

Fresh air and natural light is so important. People have to realize that when you’re in prison, you can’t seen beyond those walls. You’re deprived of the world. The only direction in which you can look is up—into the sky. Being able to look out on the horizon and see as far as your eyes will allow is not to be taken for granted.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons is now available on Netflix

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