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.”
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.