Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons’…

Season 7 of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons (Netflix) returns host Raphael Rowe to the international incarceration circuit, where he enters the general population, interviews prisoners one-on-one, centers the narrative on their perspective, and offers additional insights from prison guards and other authorities. This time around, Rowe visits four prisons, including a maximum security facility in the Solomon Islands, prisons for drug offenders in Indonesia and Czech Republic, and in the first episode, Kylmäkoski Prison in Finland.  

Opening Shot: Finland’s Kylmäkoski Prison, Raphael Rowe says in voiceover, is home to many of the country’s most violent offenders. And behind the cell doors, they’re the ones in charge. “When inmates refuse to obey the rules, and show little remorse for their violent crimes, how does the prison begin to reform them? I’m going to spend the next week locked up here to find out.”

The Gist: As Rowe has told us before on Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, he’s no stranger to the hoosegow. “I was convicted in the UK of a murder I didn’t commit, and sentenced to life with no parole,” and he served 12 years before his case was overturned and he was released. Now, as host of this series, he enters prisons all over the world on the ground floor, is processed into the population like any other new arrival, and looks for individuals who will offer their point of view of life on the inside. Finland, we learn, has one of Europe’s highest murder rates, violence that stems from abuse of alcohol and drugs, and the men who commit these crimes often end up at Kylmäkoski. It’s Rowe’s intention to find the men beyond the statistics. 

“The Finns have a progressive approach to punishment,” the host says. But community service and open prison concepts aren’t possible for the country’s most dangerous offenders, who reside in the high-security facility he’s being driven to in a van. And there’s also no requirement that these men engage with the country’s attempts to rehabilitate them, which presents Rowe with his thesis. How do these men change if they don’t want to? On the first day, Rowe is processed, his clothes and person searched, his photo taken, and his new home declared, gen pop wing 2.1. Prisoners look on warily from the open areas as he’s placed in his cell, and the guard gives him a few pointers as to the culture. “You should not speak about anything too personal. And use some common sense.” 

Rowe immediately notices how quiet it is inside his wing at Kylmäkoski – no hum or buzz, or the normal hubbub of life inside a prison’s walls. He meets Toni, Fuzzy, Michael, and Jani, who sport full sleeve tattoos, shaved heads, and bulging biceps; they welcome him, but there’s also a lair of unpredictability. (And in Finland, there are no CCTV cameras allowed in personal cells, so anything could happen beyond the guards’ view.) The age-old question of “What are you in for?” exists here, too – Jani emphasizes that any sex offenders “get knocked the fuck out” – and Rowe is struck by the relative lack of remorse the men he meets show for their crimes. And sometimes, those crimes are also brand-new – Rowe’s wing is locked down in the wake of an attack by a veteran prisoner on an impressionable newbie.     

INSIDE THE WORLDS TOUGHEST PRISONS SEASON 7
Photo: Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Netflix features all seven seasons of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons. But it’s by no means alone in the field of prison-set docuseries, and Decider has done the hard work of ranking some of the best offerings out there.

Our Take: From the prison’s resident tattoo artist, who builds his own materials from whatever is available, to the inmate Raphael Rowe meets whose vocation is crafting traditional Finnish rugs on a full-size loom, one of the most interesting aspects of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons remains how up close and personal the host gets with the everyday lives of those incarcerated. We all have an established image of what prison life looks like – the guards, the yard, the cells, the vibe of danger lurking in nooks and hard corners – and all of that is part of this documentary series, too. But it’s the quieter moments of reflection Rowe is able to elicit from the prisoners he meets that really illuminates their lives, and helps to humanize their experience. For Jani, who works the loom, his knowledge has come over a continuing cycle of freedom and incarceration, one to which he’s become entirely accustomed. And while there has been rehabilitation, too – in other words, fulfilling the aims of the Finnish prison system – it’s still the personal moments that shine, as we see men like him for who they are, and not simply as another cog in a large and faceless system. 

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: “Most of the men I’ve met here are violent repeat offenders who many would argue deserve to be locked up,” Rowe says after his seven-day stint inside. “But in my opinion, you can’t just house prisoners. You have to reform them.” And he’s left with a view that more still needs to be done to achieve that, at least in the context of Finland’s prison system.

Sleeper Star: Let’s hear it for jailbird ingenuity. Rowe shadows Toni as he tattoos an “Original Gangster” inscription onto another inmate’s neck. His tool of the trade? A tattoo gun fashioned from a pen and an Xbox controller, with ink supplied by the melting of disposable Bic razors into a usable mush. 

Most Pilot-y Line: “It doesn’t matter how many times I do this,” Rowe says from the back of the van as it creeps through the tall gates of Kylmäkoski. “I am a little bit apprehensive about the men that I’m gonna be locked up with.”

Our Call: STREAM IT. Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons moves beyond the public perception of what life is like for the incarcerated, with Rapael Rowe taking a low-key approach as a quiet observer and listener, which lets personalities emerge instead of stereotypes and cliches. 

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

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