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Raphael Rowe, like many other journalists, formally studied his craft and turned his passion for telling personal stories into a career as an investigative reporter, in the field of criminal justice. But his education occurred via correspondence in a maximum-security prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder and aggravated robbery.
Sentenced at London’s Central Criminal Court in 1990 after being convicted at age 19, alongside two accomplices, for the 1988 murder of Peter Hurburgh, Rowe was labeled one of Britain’s most notorious killers. He was escorted by two guards and a dog every time he left his cell. Yet the South-East Londoner always maintained his innocence, and in 2000, his convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal. By that time, he had served approximately 12 years in prison.
Rowe pursued journalism upon his release at age 32, joining the BBC shortly after becoming a free man. From the Today program on BBC Radio 4, to The Six O’Clock News, to serving as a correspondent on the current affairs series Panorama, the ex-prisoner and person of color — Rowe’s father is Jamaican — has exposed injustice, crime and corruption all over the world, and discovered the humanity within the most hard-bitten of characters and in the lowliest, most desperate of situations.
Now 52, Rowe recently made headlines again for the release of his memoir Notorious and podcast Second Chance, but also as the host and reporter for documentary series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons — season five hit Netflix on Jan. 8 and has been trending steadily since — where he visits prisons all over the world and stays in them. During these weeklong sojourns, he converses with guards and prisoners — murderers, drug dealers, drug users, rapists, hitmen and thieves among them — and learns as much as he can about the stories behind the crimes. Along the way, he has stared into the eyes of some of the most savage killers imaginable. But as Rowe emphasizes to The Hollywood Reporter over a video call, these prisoners — many of whom, as is often the case with repeat offenders, have endured unfortunate starts in life — are just people. “I want them to see that this serial killer, who’s responsible for 30, 40 murders during their reign of terror, is just a human being,” he says. “They do end up in prison, they are convicted and contained, but they are just flesh and blood.”
Rowe’s journey as a reporter for this series has also given him the opportunity to play cricket with some of the most dangerous felons in South Africa, football with prisoners in Germany, and to do Zumba with young criminals in the Philippines. “The authorities recognize that when you confine a human being in a 9-by-6 [foot] space day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, it does psychological damage,” says Rowe. “There has to be some relief.”
You spent your entire 20s imprisoned for crimes you didn’t commit, and I know you’ve been out of prison for 20 years, but now you’ve dedicated this chapter of your career to meeting others who are currently serving, in some cases very long sentences, for crimes many of them did commit. Why was it important that you go “back” to prison in this very different context?
I just wanted to bring the public into prisons with me. I wanted to do it in a way where I can inform and educate and try to change people’s perceptions about prisons and prisoners. It was key in my campaign to prove that I was an innocent prisoner, to have people hear my voice. And although 90 percent of the prisoners I meet are guilty of the crimes they committed — and some horrific crimes that people may have the view that they deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison — I’m not in a position to judge. The court and the criminal justice system do that. All I do is explore the human side of an individual who has committed a crime.
You speak to those inside the prison, both convicted felons and guards, in a very similar manner, with a sense of understanding and patience, but also a directness — you’re not afraid to ask people what they did to end up in prison and whether or not they show remorse for their crimes. Were you always this direct, or did prison demand that of you?
Prison shaped the character I am and it instilled in me a confidence to confront situations, to back down from situations, to negotiate situations, and so everything I learned to survive in prison has become a part of my character and personality. And I’ve taken that into the world that I live in: It’s defined my morals, my values, my beliefs. When a journalist who has not got my experience goes into prison, they will ask some very potent and powerful questions from their perspective — it may be an academic perspective because of what they’ve read and learned from books. I’m going in there with the advantage that I’ve learned from the books, but I’ve also learned from the experience, having lived there, smelled it, breathed it myself. I developed the sympathy, the empathy, the anger, the questioning from my own time in prison, and it’s helped me converse with prisoners and prison guards. Sometimes I feel that these individuals will play up to journalists, or the people who have taken an interest in what goes on in prison when they’re naive to it, and I often see through that.
We as journalists often forget that we are interacting with real people. When I’m sitting there, I am genuinely interested in what that person did, didn’t do. I’m genuinely disgusted by something they may have told me or shocked or surprised or even find it funny. I haven’t, in the whole of my career — 20 years — I haven’t become immune or desensitized by the stories.
The show obviously depicts a lot of suffering but also a slight hint at joyful distractions. I’m thinking of the episode in Brazil where conjugal visits are permitted, or the Greenland episode where men can take jobs in the town and go on dates. From your perspective, having served time, is any real joy able to be had in prison?
It’s difficult for me to answer because my time in prison was all about suffering; I was an innocent prisoner, and so the way I did my time in prison was very different from the way a convicted person who may be very remorseful for the crime that they committed [might]. It may be a relief from the suffering they were going through on the outside, so being in prison they found newfound family or whatever. I think, in answer to your question, there can be. I found it in sport — I used to captain the football team, and when we put on our kits on a Saturday afternoon and got on to that football pitch, prison was forgotten and it was all about the game, scoring the goal and winning the game and you forget where you are, as do the prisoners on the sideline watching, as do the guards that are passionate and enjoy the game of football. When it’s competitive, it makes it all the more enticing. So for those 90 minutes or more, you forget your surroundings, you forget that you’re doing time.
But as you see in the episodes, in the Philippines we were doing Zumba, in Germany I was playing football. Authorities recognize that when you confine a human being in a 9-by-6 [foot] space day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, it does psychological damage. There has to be some relief, and it often takes the shape of work, [or] the gymnasium, or whether it’s giving them the opportunity to watch a comedy on a videotape or a television program.
Do you feel that the majority of people in prison want to change?
I think those that are aware of the possibility of changing, they do want to change. Sadly, the majority of the prisoners that I meet have never been exposed to simple things like education. And by not being exposed to education, they don’t see a way out — they can’t articulate the things that they want or they need. So, they’ve only ever been exposed to violence or thievery or instinctive survival, and although they know that it’s wrong, they don’t know what the right thing is to do. So they do the wrong thing, thinking it’s the right thing, if that makes sense. I do believe deep down when I look in the eyes of many of these guys that I see something that says they wish they were where I am, on the other side, even more so when they become aware that I myself have spent time in prison and have been able to change my life.
You’ve said that hope got you through your time in prison, never losing sight of the goal, which was to prove your innocence. How did that hope manifest itself in your character and behavior in prison and how does it show itself now?
It manifested itself in giving me the instinctive internal power to survive the ordeal I was going through. It was this deep-pitted gut feeling that told me, “Tomorrow would be a different say. Next week, something will happen and my circumstances will change.” It was the internal muscle that kept me strong, if you like, that was always working away at trying to figure out how to get out of the situation that I was in. I remember once sitting down with a priest — and I’m not religious in any way, shape or form — and him telling me that that deep inner feeling was the power of faith, and I’ve never felt it was. I’ve always believed that it was me, it was the strength of character that I developed by not accepting my circumstances, not being prepared to give up on myself and all those that believed that I didn’t do what I was in prison for. That’s what that feeling was.
I think on the outside, the bitter and twisted attitude that I had in prison kind of left me, I like to think. Still, there are scars deep inside that will never leave me because of that traumatic time. But it manifested itself in my channeling that need to do something to not only help myself but help others on the outside. Hence, why I became a journalist. I had no plans on becoming a journalist — it was never a dream or desire of mine, but it was something that I fell into not long after I got out of prison. I did study journalism while I was in prison, but the purpose was to win journalists over to write stories about my wrongful conviction, and if I understood how they worked, I could maybe get them to write articles. So when I came out, I did have some understanding of the other side. But that hope manifested itself into giving other people hope; by telling their stories, by opening others’ ears or minds to what someone else has to say without judging them.
Did you get a degree in prison?
No, I never got any qualification from the correspondence course. It was just set modules and set tasks, which were very difficult to complete in prison. The first interview I ever did was with a female prison officer — the females couldn’t quite work in male prisons when I first was going into prison; they were slowly being integrated within the male prison population, so it made it a little more interesting, the dynamics between female prison officers. There was the opportunity to get a qualification at the end of [the course], but I never finished because I moved prisons and often the paperwork that should have followed me never followed me. It got lost.
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Is there a particular prison you visited in the show or interaction you experienced that encompasses, in a nutshell, why you are a justice journalist?
To be honest, I think it’s almost manifested itself in every prison I’ve been in and every character I’ve met for different reasons. When I was in Belize, it was a place where I met numerous prisoners who have been held and incarcerated for five, 10 years, and they haven’t even been convicted of a crime. Now, that’s an injustice in itself. Whatever they were accused of, surely, within two years they should have stood trial, the justice system should have worked, whether it’s to find them guilty or not guilty. But to hold a man in prison for a crime that he’s not been convicted of, or it’s not been proven against him, for five or 10 years, is barbaric.
I met a few serial killers during the making of this program, one in Ukraine, and I think understanding the reality of those sorts of individuals — and they’re few and far between, although the “serial killer” tag gets these kinds of headlines when they happen, and we fear what we see on television more than the reality in life. What I wanted to do when I sit down with people like that is to empower people not to fear those individuals. I want them to see that this serial killer, who’s responsible for 30, 40 murders during their reign of terror, is just a human being.
And then, there are just people who have had an unfortunate start in life that end up becoming repetitive criminals; in and out of prison, getting caught up in gang culture, thinking that what they do, they need to do because they’ve had no other opportunity. I get lots of messages on social media from people saying, “You’ve changed my perception of what I thought these people were like.” And that’s how they would describe them, “these people.”
There’s one or two times in the show where it seems like the prison guards are not completely being transparent with you, for example when showing you a cell, they skip over some until they find one that’s suitable for television. Could you tell at the time if they were trying to quickly clean something up or hurrying you through a certain area, and did you push them?
I think there have been many occasions where the authorities don’t want me to see certain things. But to be honest with you, I found it quite interesting that, you know, we’re in there for so long, we see and hear everything and there’s no set agenda arranged with the guards. Of course, they’re giving us access, so there has to be a level of understanding and it starts with security. If there is a murderous reign of terror taking place over in the corner, we shouldn’t be going over there and trying to film it because we could end up getting seriously hurt, and that’s happened on a couple of occasions. But there are occasions when the guards will take us to some of the darker places in the prison because we’ve insisted that we get taken there. And if they don’t, I’ll turn to the camera and say that they’ve tried to hide that from me.
I think what they do more is that they challenge the prisoners’ version of events or a prisoner’s take on what it’s like in a particular part of the prison. So if a prisoner is telling me that they were tortured in a cell, the guards might turn around and say, “That’s not true. We don’t do that.” There have been some restrictions, like in the Belize episode for example, the director would not let me into what they call A-sect, which was this very horrible space where they kept prisoners for months and deprived them of any life or anything else.
Your podcast explores the theme of a second chance, and you interview many individuals who have either done prison time or are facing time, or have transformed their lives in positive and productive ways. There’s a particular episode where a young man facing prison time says that he came to you to try and help him out of his legal mess. Do people see you as an authority on how to approach the Court of Appeal, and do you feel like one?
I think people seek advice and guidance because unfortunately, the people who are qualified to give advice and guidance charge money, and rightly so because that’s the profession that they’re in. And even though they offer pro-bono services, they can’t offer that to everyone. I have people come to me almost on a daily basis, and I do [help] where I can. I have the insight, I’ve worn the T-shirt, as they say, you know, in terms of being a victim of injustice or surviving prison or knowing how to navigate a dangerous situation.
Or even in my world of journalism, as an undercover journalist [he smuggled diamonds from Sierra Leone to the United Kingdom], people seek my counsel, but I don’t have all the answers. What I do try to do on my podcast is give a voice to people who are facing challenges that the mainstream media wouldn’t entertain, simply because they’re not serving the daily agenda. And I’ve worked at the BBC for 16 years, so I know what I’m talking about in the sense that there is always a daily agenda, and all the news broadcast outlets cover it. Most magazines and newspapers can go beyond that agenda because they’ve got more space, but these are the people that get lost in the criminal justice system, or in society as a whole, and so their side of a story never gets told. It’s refreshing to hear ordinary people tell their story, their challenges, their hurdles; whether you believe them or not is entirely up to you. [But] if we don’t listen, how are we supposed to progress or understand how to prevent it happening next time?
In what ways can the media be active in identifying and telling the stories that need to be told in order for communities to really be educated about reform and criminal justice?
There are two very simple answers. One, is that the people who are employed in the industry need to be more diverse. They have to come from different backgrounds, whether it’s gender, whether it’s race, attitude, their cultural differences — the industry itself has to change significantly. I worked at the BBC for 16 years, and it was a carbon copy of itself, year after year after year because people are used to what the BBC offers, and anyone who wants to work for the BBC often wants [it] to work in the same way. Or the expectations of the audience is that when someone like myself pops up as a reporter, it’s like, that’s not the BBC — this person is a sidestep. So that’s the first step, is for these industries to really become —not talk about becoming — more diverse.
The second thing is to do what I do, which is allow people who approach you to tell their story, to tell their story. I interviewed a woman this morning who contacted me from Sydney, Australia, last week on social media, saying that she wanted to inspire people from her experience of suffering from bulimia and anorexia — I invited her on the podcast. Yesterday, I interviewed a woman who contacted me and said that when she was 16, she turned to prostitution to support herself. She was a drug addict, comes from a middle-class family, but went off the rails. But now she’s leading a very successful life. These people approach me and ask if they can tell their story on my platform. That’s the solution; you allow these people to tell their story, you don’t judge their story before they’ve told it. And by that I mean, as journalists we often want to know what it’s about before we publish it or broadcast it — we want to make sure it fits the agenda so it serves the audience. It should be the other way around. We have a responsibility to allow people to tell their stories.
You’ve launched, amid the pandemic, a criminal justice documentary channel. What aspects of incarceration and rehabilitation will you be focusing on?
It’s an internet channel, and what I’m doing is working with an aggregate company who buys up documentaries from around the world and then I will hand-select what documentaries I would want people to watch and to learn from. I’m trying to select those that focus on punishment and those that focus on rehabilitation, and I want people to watch as much as they can between these different approaches, so that they can make a decision about whether they want people to be punished, or whether they think rehabilitation is the key to the criminal justice system.
Now obviously if you’re a victim of crime, you’re going to be more toward punishment because you want to know that the person who has committed a crime against you or somebody that you love or know, are punished. But it’s how you punish people. When we send people to prison, that’s the punishment. What you do with them in prison is about the rehabilitation program. What I want to try and do on this channel is try and accumulate as much as I can to educate people about the different forms of rehabilitation from around the world, the different practices, the different cultures and countries — like I do in the Netflix series – and the different people that work within the prison system, whether it’s the dog handler, to the medical staff to the prison guard, because they vary, and their jobs vary, and their approach to how they interact with prisoners, vary. They have a different story to tell, all of them.
As we mentioned earlier, a positive outcome — being released and having your conviction quashed — eventually came from your own imprisonment. Despite this, do you find that conversations with new people are difficult because of your history?
No, not at all. I think I’ve embraced my past, used it to succeed in my present, and will use it to leave a legacy in my future. I’ve come to terms with what’s happened with me. I’m comfortable talking about my time in prison, how I coped and dealt with that, and it’s who I am, it gives me the passion, the drive, the balance — if you like, the wisdom. And regardless of whether people want to believe that there’s never smoke without fire, there are people that would always believe you can be proven innocent 10 times but there’s something that must have been guilty about you. Or, that the criminal justice system just never gets it wrong, despite it happening again and again in the United Kingdom, in the United States of America, in other countries around the world who are supposed to have the best criminal justice systems in the world.
I would not have become the successful journalist working for the BBC’s most prestigious radio and television program had I not acquired the skills that helped me campaign and get out of prison.
What do you think you’d be doing if you had had a completely different life, if there was no wrongful conviction or prison time?
That’s a really difficult question. I think the honest one would be — I’d like to think that I would have been a successful football player because that was something that I really enjoyed and was really good at. But I was no angel when I was a teenager. I got into trouble with the law, I got involved in violent incidents, I committed other crimes — not serious crimes, but theft and things like that — so I did have my run-ins with the law, but what teenager doesn’t? Maybe most don’t, but I suppose we all do something that kind of defines us as teenagers. But that’s what I would have liked to have become, a professional football player. Or maybe even the prime minister of England, who knows? I might have taken a turn and done something that set me on a path that I didn’t expect, in the same way that my path was set for me as a wrongfully convicted prisoner. You just don’t know what’s around the corner, and so you should never give up the moment.
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Why is your book titled Notorious?
It was an agreement between me and my publisher. Because at one point in my life, I was a notorious prisoner. I was deemed one of Britain’s most dangerous prisoners, a maximum-security prisoner who was escorted by two prison guards and a dog every time I walked out of my prison cell. We played with Notorious by [emphasizing] the “Not I” in the title. I was never a notorious person — that’s what I was labeled.
I would imagine that a wrongful conviction of murder and 12 years in prison would result in numerous stories. Did you get it all out in this book or will there be more to come?
I haven’t got all the stories out. I tried to be honest and direct, and that was a pressure because people who know me and my work know that I was wrongfully imprisoned, but they don’t know what that entailed and I’ve been quite a private person. So for example, I’ve never talked about my wife and children anywhere, at any point, and so in my book it’s the first time that I reveal that I’m even married. I can only tell so much. I spent 12 years in prison and I’ve written a book that is 250 pages long. I’ve got a box here of diaries of the 12 years I was in prison — I didn’t even go into that box for this book. But I think there’s always lots to tell. I’ve seen things and I’ve been privileged to visit these prisons around the world, and yet what you see in those hourlong episodes of each prison — you know, I’m spending seven days in there, and there’s so much more to it. But it’s also the other stories that we can’t share that I hear from people and that I think are important.
Thank you for the honest conversation, it’s not one I have every day.
I appreciate you taking an interest. And this is important to mention, just before we go. I’ve been in all these prisons and I’ve seen all that I’ve seen, and I’m still blown away and surprised that I can go to a country and I can see inside a place where they don’t have the resources to improve those conditions. Not just for the prisoners, but for their own country’s state of mind. Because I think that if people believe that people can change, they will change themselves.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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