The disturbing Romanian reality behind Netflix show ‘World’s Toughest Prisons’


Raphael Rowe served 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Now, for the hit Netflix documentary series, called Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons , the TV presenter and journalist experiences the brutal conditions prisoners face in countries like Romania, Brazil and Ukraine.

The format of the show is that Rowe checks in to a prison for seven days, living the life of a prisoner and filming the conditions that he sees, as well as getting to know some of the inmates and staff. The episode set in Craiova prison, Romania, has gained some of the most attention, perhaps because the conditions were surprisingly bad for a country that is a member of the European Union. Rowe talks about the chronic overcrowding and poor conditions he sees during his week in the Romania jail.

Rowe also voices his suspicions that the prison guards had removed some of the inmates for his benefit, to make the cells seem less overcrowded, even though with some inmates removed, he still found the spaces overcrowded.  When Rowe visits the higher security section of the prison, he says: “What they are trying to do is show me a perfect cell. The guards are trying to manage what I see and what I don’t see.” Even when they do find a cell that they are willing to show him, he is still appalled by the conditions: “It’s hard to convey how a human can be kept inside such a confined space for so many years. You need to feel this space to understand how oppressive it is. Even the hardest man will find it difficult to cope with this.”

Rowe’s experience is backed up by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), as detailed by their report.  The conditions discovered by the CPT team fall far below expected European standards for the treatment of prisoners and include attacks by masked intervention groups, violence, lack of healthcare and severe overcrowding.

The conditions inside Romanian prisons have also drawn criticism from the UK. Ben Keith, a UK barrister specialising in extradition and human rights has complained that assurances given by Romanian authorities to UK courts regarding his clients were not respected in reality: “When I first began challenging Romanian prison condition cases, it was clear that inmates often did not have a bed; or if they did, they had no space to get off it. Locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, unable to exercise, using a hole in the corner of the cell as a toilet, conditions were horrific. Promises were made that conditions would improve, and assurances were provided that the human rights of those extradited would be respected. Our courts believed them, and the cases were lost. It rapidly transpired that the truth about the conditions was not being told. Clients contacted me to say that, in spite of the assurances, they were in appalling conditions.”

Dr Charles Tannock, a former MEP, wrote in The Parliament about his concern over Romanian prison conditions: “It is both heart-breaking and unacceptable that such conditions exist inside a European prison system. No one is suggesting that prison should be ‘soft’, but such inhumane treatment as witnessed by the CPT team in Romania should not be possible inside the European Union.”

It seems that the reality could even worse than the Netflix series.

Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons is available now on Netflix.


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