Emporium Productions’ seventh season of Netflix show, Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons, is now showing on the streamer. Executive Producer Emma Read and show runner Dollan Cannell, explain what it takes to make a series from inside some of the world’s most dangerous maximum-security prisons.


Our seventh series of ‘Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons’ recently launched on Netflix, and we have been thrilled with the viewers’ response to our four new episodes, which follow host Raphael Rowe, who continues to provide his unparalleled expertise and insight behind the bars of the planet’s most dangerous maximum-security prisons; this time in Bali, Czech Republic, Finland and the Solomon Islands.  

In its release week, the new series sat as the number 1 most-watched show on Netflix in the UK for four consecutive days and made the top 10 in 46 countries, with an average position of #5 across the globe. This has been our show’s most popular outing to date, and offers an opportunity to reflect on Emporium’s success in making the programme, and the measures taken to negate the genuine, real risks to Raphael and the crew, in what can be unforgiving, violent environments. 

Incredibly, we have now filmed in over 27 different prisons around the world but it’s not easy convincing prisons to open their doors and allow our crew in, with permission to film things exactly as we find them. We are often asked why any prison would let us in to film the regime and the lives of prisoners within their walls and razor wire: it’s just about the toughest access to achieve! After 8 years, Emporium Productions has built up a reputation for being able to gain access to the institutions around the world which usually say no. We never pay for access and in each case, access is painstakingly negotiated over many months by reaching the right people and gaining their trust in our approach.   

The endlessly surprising thing about prisons around the world is how incredibly different they are; the simple aim of the series is finding out how and why. Every country has a very different approach to punishing criminals, so each time we send a crew into one, we really don’t know what they’ll encounter. It could be very violent, very unhappy men. It could be heart-breaking stories of broken, wasted lives and searches for redemption. It could be deep religious faith.  It could be inhumane treatment by guards, it could be incredible dedication to helping prisoners change. For a programme-maker, a prison offers a unique insight into a society’s underbelly and moral code, and seven seasons in, we are still being constantly taken aback by what we find behind closed doors. 

Armed with the best information we can gather on the outside – which may not go very far – and a pre-filming recce, we send Raphael Rowe in, in handcuffs, to be treated in the same way as any prisoner. Then with a small obs doc type team of a shooting PD, a second camera op/director, sound recordist and local fixer, we have a single intense week to capture the temperature of the place on camera, gauge how it works, try and work out the power structures, who rules the roost, and find prisoners and officers who can communicate from the heart about their lives and try and tell a human story about the life of the prison and it is endlessly surprising.

Every aspect of what Raphael experiences, even if it’s just the daily routine – hygiene, work, exercise, food – can be a clue to something of real significance.  What sort of criminal activity does each society throw up and why?  What crimes are deemed worthy of the harshest punishments? And once offenders are locked up, what’s the purpose of keeping them there – just to punish or incapacitate or is each prison genuinely taking on the dauntingly hard job of reforming offenders for real?   

In Indonesia we found a highly disciplinarian regime in a society with a zero tolerance approach to illegal drugs; massive overcrowding is plain to see and it’s definitely uncompromising but there are more positives than first appear. In the Czech Republic, Plzen prison felt like the aftermath of the pervasive problem of crystal meth addiction, worse among Czechs than pretty much anywhere in Europe.  In Finland we found a very progressive regime trying to change some frighteningly violent men.  In some ways the most challenging situation of all was the remote Solomon Islands – the prison told a story of the value of religious faith, but also of this society’s shockingly widespread incidence of violence against women, a problem that could take generations to tackle but which the prison, with very scant resources, must try and handle in the here and now.    

Raphael brings experience very few have had – the perspective of having spent a very long time behind bars himself in the UK and often his own human responses are interestingly different from other members of the crew who are spending time behind bars with him.

Jon Creamer

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