There’s something endlessly fascinating about the prison system. Given the number of documentaries and small-screen dramas we’ve been graced with over the years, it appears this fascination is shared with others across the globe. As someone whose followed this show on and off over the years, season 4 of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons is arguably the strongest collection of episodes assembled.
For those unaware, or new to this series, the first season was bit hit and miss, partly thanks to the narrator and some over-exaggerated scenes. From the second season onward, the show dusted itself down, changed the format slightly and brought in former prisoner Raphael Rowe to travel the globe instead. The result was something that instantly felt more comfortable and engaging, especially given this presenter has been there, done that and got the mental scars to prove it.
With each season showcasing four different prisons, the format here is the same as it has been in the past. For those unaware, Raphael travels the globe and searches for some of the world’s toughest prisons. He then spends a week locked up inside, eking out or cautiously living his life while talking to inmates and guards about their experiences. Unlike that first season where Connolly exclaimed repeatedly that he was “fearing for his life”, there’s a much more grounded and mature approach toward the material and season 4 is definitely one of the best for this.
What makes this season so fascinating though is the way each of these episodes complement and contrast one another. An overcrowded prison in Paraguay sees 35 prison guards dwarfed by 4000 prisoners, many of which forced to sleep on the floor in the yard. By contrast, episode 2 sees Raphael travel up to Germany and stay within the eerily quiet and relaxed approach of rehabilitating 188 prisoners in Germany.
Episode 3 sees us hop over to the island of Mauritius for an extremely tough prison sentence where punishments are frequent and swift. The final segment takes a trip West to South Africa (and specifically Lesotho) while bringing a poignant and shocking conversation about sexual abuse in the prison.
Individually, each of the episodes do well to engage and they all mostly follow the same format. Raphael’s commentary is informative and interesting, although as a personal gripe some lines of dialogue are delivered a little slow and could do with a bit of beefing up. However, there’s a refreshing change of pace with his narration that prevents the show ever falling into melodramatic waters so it’s easy to look past.
Much like Ross Kemp, the final closing comments for each episode serve up a poignant and thought provoking snapshot of what life was like inside that prison.
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons is a fascinating documentary series. It’s a show that uses contrasting and juxtaposing fortunes with each prison to help the episodes stand out and work as a collective whole. While there are better documentaries on the topic, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons is well worth a watch nonetheless and definitely one of the strongest seasons of this show.
Verdict - 8/10