‘I Spent 12 Years In Prison For A Crime I Didn’t Commit. Here’s What I Learned’

By Aaron Walawalkar, News and Digital Editor, Rhys Norman, Video Assistant 24 Aug 2020
Journalist Raphael Rowe vists Maseru prison in Lesotho in the latest series of Inside the World's Toughest Prisons. Credit: Emporium Production / Netflix

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“There are so many people in British prisons that don’t deserve to be there,” said ex-inmate-turned-journalist Raphael Rowe. 

“People with mental health issues. Women who have only committed desperate crimes to support their families, as have men.” 

There are few people who possess Rowe’s intimate knowledge and experience of life behind bars. 

After serving 12 years in jail for a crime he has always maintained he did not commit, Rowe has forged an almost two-decade-long career as an investigative journalist. He currently presents Netflix’s documentary series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons

During our hour-long, wide-ranging video interview, Rowe speaks candidly about government plans to build four new prisons in England – in a bid to “boost rehabilitation”, “support the construction industry”, and create room for 10,000 inmates. 

“Talking about building more prisons is the wrong approach,” he said, pointing to the UK’s already swollen prison population – the highest in western Europe

“Supporting people in the community … is what is needed, rather than just locking somebody up and then letting them out six months later, into probably more troublesome problems,” he said. 

“Their home could be taken away, their family could have broken up. So [prison] creates … in the majority of people’s lives, more problems than it solves.” Raphael Rowe

There are so many people in British prisons that don’t deserve to be there.

Raphael Rowe visits Tacumbu prison in Paraguay, dubbed the most dangerous on Earth. Credit: Emporium Productions

There are so many people in British prisons that don’t deserve to be there.

It is a perspective that, while perhaps unpalatable to many, is backed by evidence and appears to be gaining purchase.

Prison Reform Trust analysis of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data has shown 69% of the 59,000 people sent to prison in 2018 had committed non-violent offences and were sentenced to six months or less.

Criminal defence barrister Chris Daw QC is a prominent voice among those who say these prisoners could safely, and more effectively, be dealt within the community. This would enable offenders to work, reducing the risk of family breakdown, homelessness, and ultimately reoffending, it is argued.

It’s necessary in order to change that individual’s life and prevent you from becoming the next victim.

Raphael Rowe

MoJ figures also show that reoffending rates are lower among prisoners given community sentences compared to those given short prison terms. However, the use of community sentences has more than halved in a decade. Research suggests that this is partly due community sentences being implemented “in a way that bears little resemblance to the evidence of what works,” with magistrates perceiving them as ineffective as a result.

“It’s necessary in order to change that individual’s life and prevent you from becoming the next victim,” Rowe added.

“In prison, they will meet other prisoners, they might learn new skills about committing crime … They stand a better chance in the community than they do in prison.”

In the fourth series of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, released last month, Rowe looks at life ‘on the inside’ in three different continents – talking to inmates, guards and governors.  

Among the prisons he visits is Tacumbu in Paraguay, dubbed the “most dangerous” on Earth. Another is Maseru in Lesotho, where sexual violence is at crisis point and a majority of inmates are believed to have HIV. 

The show’s title might lead some viewers to expect a sensationalist portrayal of the grim realities of life for inmates in the world’s deepest, darkest corners. 

Instead what they will find is a nuanced look at a wide array of approaches to the centuries-old problem of how different societies deal with offenders, informed by Rowe’s unique life experience. 

For Rowe, the most effective prison featured so far in the series is Halden, in Norway, where conditions are strikingly similar to life on the outside.  

“It’s a prison with a purpose. And the purpose is not to punish because those who have been sent to prison are already being punished. Their purpose is to rehabilitate prisoners, and they have one of the lowest, if not the lowest, recidivism rates in the world.”

At Halden Prison, the rate of re-offending within two years stands at around 20% compared to 50% in the UK.

He added: “It’s a place where the staff are progressive … they find it shocking that you question why they care so much, they find that is their purpose as a prison guard to care and to change the life of a prisoner. And that for me, was outstanding.”

Raphael Rowe with an inmate at Schwalmstadt prison in Germany. Credit: Emporium Productions / Netflix

Rowe’s journey into the depths of Britain’s prison system can be traced back to 1988, when he was 18. 

The southeast Londoner, who grew up on a council estate and had previous brushes with the law, was arrested on suspicion of being a member of the what the British press branded the ‘M25 Three’ – a trio accused of a string of armed motorway robberies, one ending in murder. 

Always maintaining his innocence, Rowe was convicted of murder and robbery at London’s Old Bailey in 1990 in a trial that was deeply flawed.

Firstly, the victims were certain that one, possibly two, of the perpetrators were white – one with fair hair and blue eyes. Yet the police insisted Rowe, who is half-Jamaican and half-English, and his two co-accused, both black, were responsible.

There was also a failure to inform the court that Norman Duncan, the key witness in implicating Rowe, was a convicted criminal-turned-police informer who had received £10,300 in reward money from the Daily Mail for his information. Nor was it known that Duncan, who stole the car used in the first M25 robbery, had spent two days in a Surrey Police rape suite before being informally interviewed by officers about the M25 crimes. Duncan later lied in court about his collusion with the police, which the appeal court would go on to describe as “profoundly disturbing.”

After 12 years of tireless campaigning from his prison cell, in which he avidly read up on the law and worked with journalists to turn the tide of public opinion, Rowe succeeded in bringing his case to the European Court of Human Rights, who ruled his right to a fair trial had been breached. The Court of Appeal later overturned his conviction


“Without the decision from the European Court of Human Rights that I was denied the right to a fair trial, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now,” he told EachOther.  

With no career to fall back on, Rowe’s life has taken an exceptional new direction since his release. He was hired by the BBC and would eventually go on to work on programmes including Panorama and the One Show. 

He acknowledges that this is not the norm for people who are wrongly convicted – who have no legal right to financial compensation, but must instead appeal to the Justice Secretary’s discretion.

Under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, passed by then Home Secretary Theresa May, wrongly convicted people must prove their innocence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to be eligible for financial compensation. Critics say this is a reversal of the long-standing principle of innocent until proven guilty.

Meanwhile, like many others, Rowe received no statutory psychological support to help him deal with his trauma after being released.

“If the criminal justice system wrongfully arrests, convicts and locks somebody up … anybody who’s been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system, where it’s affected them psychologically, physically, it’s the responsibility of those that caused that to help that individual,” Rowe said. 

“It shouldn’t be left to a charity that is constantly seeking funds to help put right what the government and the authorities got wrong.”

EachOther has put its big questions to Rowe, in an interview which covers everything from the recent spate of Black Lives Matter protests, to media diversity to miscarriages of justice. 

Watch our video interview or read the full story below. 

Please describe what you do in 15 words or less?

That’s a hard one, isn’t it? I’m an investigative journalist and presenter on television programmes, specialising in social and criminal justice issues.

And what advice would you give to a 10-year-old-you?

I would probably tell myself to listen to those that are older and wiser. As a kid, you often overlook what adults tell you because you think you know best or you want your own way.

So for me, it would be about focusing on important things like education, and why education is important and why the human language is an important tool. If you are able to articulate yourself, as you get older, it can open doors. Aggression can’t open doors.

I did need the support of people both inside and outside of prison. So the one thing I learnt more than anything wants to be patient, be determined, remain focused and never give up.

Raphael Rowe

What was the most important lesson you learned during your time in prison?

Even in the face of the most stressful adversity: never give up. When I was confined in a prison cell and couldn’t open a door and get out. When all I wanted was my freedom. I learned not to give up and succumb to that confinement, to be as determined as I could to change my situation.

One of the lessons was that I needed people. I often thought I could do it on my own. I was the architect of my campaign, and my fight for freedom, but I did need the support of both people inside and outside of prison. So the one thing I learnt more than anything was to be patient, be determined, remain focused and never give up.

What would you say was the most important lesson you learned as a journalist?

Not long after I came out of prison and I joined the BBC, I was still a young man who was trying to catch up on the 12 years he lost. I had dreadlocks I had brown skin, I spoke with a South London accent with prison slang, I was quite fresh out of jail.

So I wasn’t as articulate in BBC language as I was in life experiences. And so when I first joined the BBC, I wanted to sound and be like the institution that I was about to work for, and I remember going into the Radio Four Today programme on my very first day, wearing a suit, thinking that I needed to be like everybody else.

And I soon realised I wasn’t like everybody else, I had a completely different upbringing, I had a completely different experience in life. And so my biggest lesson was to be myself and to sound like who I am, to behave like who I am. And to do it the way I would do it within the rules. But to do it my way, rather than the way all the other journalists were doing it.

Melrosa Prison, in Mauritius. Credit: Netflix / Emporium Productions

Who would play you in a movie of your life?

I’m a man of mixed race. I have a white mother and a black father. I’m going to pick two people, if I’m being fair to my heritage. And I’d say Morgan Freeman because I admire him as an actor. I could have picked Denzel Washington or one of the other well known figures … but Morgan Freeman I admire as an actor.

Sean Penn would play the white side, Morgan Freeman, the black side. If I could amalgamate those two to play me, it would be ideal because I think both of those actors, outside of their work, care about what they do. They are men of morals. And it appears to me that they’re not driven by fame or fortune. Although they both have that, they have more to them than just their acting careers.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that I survived 12 years of torture while wrongfully imprisoned. I’m proud that when I came out, I didn’t succumb to drugs and drink to hide the the torture that I went through. I’m proud that I carved a very successful career out of being a journalist. And of the stories that I’ve done as a journalist exposing injustice, bringing people into worlds that they would never otherwise get the opportunity to see. But I think all that together, the most important thing that I’m proud of is changing people’s perceptions. And I think I’ve done that in many different ways. I’ve inspired, motivated and given people hope. And it all comes from my day job, if you like, fighting my wrongful conviction, championing a cause in my journalistic work, so I’m proud of everything I’ve done, but most importantly, changing people’s perceptions and the narrative about things that matter.

I thought winning back my freedom, being freed from imprisonment, was the summit. But it wasn’t … there was much more to climb.

Raphael Rowe

Is there anything that you’d like to achieve, which you haven’t yet?

No – I thought winning back my freedom, being freed from imprisonment, was the summit. But it wasn’t…. there was much more to climb. And I’ve done that as a journalist. And I continue. I’m writing a book and launching a podcast. So I’m always looking for new things to tell people about other people’s experiences and to amalgamate my own life experiences. I’m not somebody who’s always in search of something, because I’m quite content with where I am in life. But that comes from the fact that I know what it’s like to be in a very dark corner. And what it’s like to be in that corner for a very long time, not ever knowing whether it would ever be lit up again.

If you could immediately put right one injustice in the UK right now, what would it be and why?

Discrimination is probably at the top of my list. Educating people and bringing people an opportunity where they can collaborate with others who are different from them, not just here in the UK, but anywhere in the world. Whether that’s the colour of their skin, their religious upbringing, it’s discrimination. When you discriminate against somebody, you put up barriers both in your own life and in their life. Bringing down discrimination would bring about a harmony that we desperately need. Covid-19 has shown that it’s really possible, where people overcame their own prejudice in order to help others. It didn’t matter what colour they were, what their education was or what part of society they came from.

Raphael Rowe and a prisoner in Paraguay's Tacumbu prison. Credit: Emporium / Netflix

Do you have any ideas about how to heal divisions in society right now?

One way to heal divisions is sharing knowledge and collaborating, telling people something they don’t know. It changes their perception or their understanding. I think that can go a long, long way. Of course, financial support in areas where people desperately need it would make a big change and bridge the gap between those who have and those who don’t. These are age old problems that people strive to change all the time. Finance can help. But knowledge I think is far more important in some circumstances.

What’s your assessment of the current state of the UK prison estate and how effective is it in terms of rehabilitation?

The prison estate here in the UK differs across the country. We have A category prisons, B, C and D category prisons. They all serve a different purpose in terms of security and what they do with prisoners.

On TV we usually get a diet of local dispersal type prisons where everything’s a bit chaotic. These are not the deep dark prisons that I spent time in where prisoners have served 10, 15, 20 years and the atmosphere is very different. There is a focus on therapy and some rehabilitation. And so I think the perception that the media paints in this country is sometimes misleading. And often when they focus in on characters, they often pick that guy or girl that is on drugs or comes from a very, you know, desperate background or a broken home.

There’s no question more can be done with more investment. Talking about building more prisons is the wrong approach. There are so many people in British prisons that don’t deserve to be in there … people with mental health issues, women who have only committed, you know, desperate crimes to support their families, as well as men. So there is a lot more that can be done.

The government announced in June that it was going to build three new prisons. What is your reaction to that?

You know, for the government to be talking about building prisons it means they will look to incarcerate more people.   That should be a concern for everyone because it means they’re already targeting people in the community, people in society who haven’t been convicted or sent to a prison sentence.

Like they have this whole kind of conveyor belt in the United States, we are moving in the same direction.

It concerns me that the government is talking about building new prisons, because they’re then going to need prisoners to fill those prisons. And that’s where there is injustice and people should be concerned because it could be your brother, your mother, your sister. 

It’s another thing if they’re talking about building new modern prisons, where they will move those that are housed in these diabolical Victorian type establishments, so that those individuals can be treated by therapy or rehabilitation programmes. If that’s what they’re talking about, that might be progressive. But it sounds to me like they’re building new prisons, which mean they need new prisoners, which means our prison population will increase when in fact, what it really needs to do is decrease.

In the discussion around Black Lives Matter there’s been calls to defund the police and to a lesser extent, also prisons. And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

I think it’s about accountability.  Defunding the police and defunding prisons will only cause people in the community to suffer.

That’s not to say I’m for or against the idea. It’s about accountability. We need police officers to police the streets in some way, shape, or form. If they’re not police officers, you call them something else. But you do need that element in society. I mean, people could do it for themselves, but is that reliable?

So we have this police force and it’s going to exist and we’re not going to get rid of it. So we have to think about the reality. So for me, it’s about accountability when police officers, prison officers or things go wrong, to ensure people who were responsible are held to account. So for me, defund should be more about accountability, rather than taking funds away, when sometimes funds could make a big difference. And reducing the numbers of these individuals will make I think, a situation that is already bad, much, much worse.

You said we should incarcerate fewer people, what do you think we should do instead?

I think evidence shows that rehabilitation programmes outside of prison make more of a difference than the rehabilitation programmes and rehabilitation is a big word inside of prisons. I think diverting people from prison would be a really good way of changing somebody’s life. I mean, you can’t rehabilitate someone, somebody has to choose within themselves, that their mindset of criminality is going to change wherever that’s driven by drug addiction, alcoholism, or whatever their reason for committing crime or getting into trouble repeatedly. So I think diverting individuals from prisons makes a much bigger difference. supporting people in the community and doing things in our environment, I think, is what is needed more than just locking somebody up and then letting them out six months later, into probably more troublesome problems, their home could be taken away, their family could have broken up. So it creates, I think, in some, and this could be the majority of people’s lives, more problems than it solves.

Raphael Rowe in Lesotho. Credit: Emporium / Netflix

What would you say to other young people from backgrounds like yours considering a career in journalism, what advice would you give them?

My advice to anybody who is embarking on a career as a journalist is stay true to who you are, believe in what you believe. Report on what it is you want to report on, don’t let anybody dictate to you what it should be. When you know it’s wrong, if you agree and you think it’s the right thing, and what they’re doing is enhancing your journalism, making your story more powerful, helping you articulate what it is you want to say or show, then that is great.

But if they start to change your story to meet an agenda that is not the agenda of the story, you’ve got to resist that. And that’s a big, big challenge because you’ve got bills to pay. You’ve got rent to pay, food to buy, people to support and it’s hard not to succumb to other people. When I say other people, I mean editors, people that are paying you to do the job that you’re doing. They have an agenda so you really do have to be steadfast and and stay true to who you are.

Young protesters at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Sheffield. Credit: Flickr / Tim Dennell

What hopes do you have for the Black Live Matter movement in the UK?

I found it all quite incredible actually, that we’ve been going about our daily lives while these statues of figures who benefited from slavery or other racist behaviour have existed. I’ve just found it quite cathartic, quite enlightening that people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have taken action for themselves and decided enough is enough.

I admire those people who are putting themselves at risk to share the knowledge and educate people about their own personal experiences, their ancestors’ experiences, or their daily existence. And it’s not just, you know, people who are victims of racism, because as you rightly say, these TV programmes that I grew up on that were overtly racist yet acceptable within the institutions like the BBC, it’s incredible. It’s only now that they’re sort of saying: “Oh, we’re sorry about that. We’re taking it down.”

But it’s taken something like the Black Lives Matter movement and direct action for them to actually do something about it.

I don’t have, if I’m honest, I don’t have much hope for what’s going to happen now.

Because we have this, this rush of movement. It’s created lots of conversation, lots of change. But like everything, it goes back to normal. Maybe those statues won’t be put back and that will be a mark of some progress. But I think the inherent knowledge that people have … or their behaviour towards other people will not change for generations.

It’s just too embedded in who they are, where they come from.

But I think the biggest fear and challenge that remains is people like their comfort zone. And to bring about change would mean making big sacrifices in your own personal life, whether that’s financial, or by way of your employment. What it requires is such seismic changes that people are not comfortable with. And so it’s going to take much, much longer.

Let us treat Rowe’s fears as a warning that we should not let the Black Lives Matter movement be a passing moment. To this end, read EachOther’s commitment towards becoming an anti-racist organisation and the coverage from our Black Lives Matter takeover around how we can build lasting change. 

Raphael Rowe has launched a new podcast called ‘Second Chance’ and is set to release his autobiography, Notorious, later this year. Find out more on his website. 

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.