Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons season 2 premiere recap: ‘Brazil: The Gang Prison’


Netflix’s Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons does what it promises. The season 2 premiere takes us inside Brazil’s Porto Velho Penitentiary — brimming with rival gang members!

American prisons are notoriously violent, but Brazil’s Porto Velho Penitentiary is nothing to sneeze at. Courtesy of a relentless drug war, this prison is overwhelmingly populated by gangs, and riots have occurred pretty regularly. It’s said that there’s 1 guard per 80 inmates, which makes it a challenge to control.  Regardless of the danger, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons lets us enter that world, from the safety of one’s sofa.

The Host: Raphael Rowe

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons host Raphael Rowe is no stranger to prison. He was convicted in the UK for a murder he didn’t commit and stayed imprisoned for 12 years. Still, it doesn’t make his week in Porto Velho a walk in the park. There’s every sense that, if he doesn’t play his cards right, he could end up in serious trouble. Luckily for him, he knows how to blend in, even as he asks a few tough questions.

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One focus for Rowe is the drug war itself. Though he understands the drug war, he can’t help but note the crisis caused by large-scale drug war arrests, and how a “zero tolerance” policy for narcotics has fed gang warfare (including in Porto Velho). He repeatedly suggests causes for the problem. He notes how, rather than being provide with better opportunities, Brazil throws low-level drug dealers into prisons with rapists and murderers. In this sense, they are further indoctrinated into gang life and philosophy.

The Gangs: Comando Vermelho vs. Primeiro Comando da Capital

Rio de Janeiro’s Comando Vermelho (AKA “Red Command”) have been at odds with São Paulo’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (or P.C.C.) for a while. In fact, Porto Velho seems to think most inmates belong to one of those gangs. When new inmates come in, interrogations are done to understand gang affiliation. On that note, Raphael Rowe says prison strip searches are a psychological tool employed to dominate the gangs. Because strip searches are undignified, Rowe says they give Prison Guards and other officials the upper hand.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons: The Prison Conditions

Apart from outright violence, some of the worst aspects of prisons are the overall conditions. Rowe mentions the brutal heat and the stench in a group cell, where one prisoner says he’s been for 10 days. At the same time, Rowe seems intent on showing positives, even in prison. He notes how there’s a more “relaxed” section of the prison, Pavilion C, where inmates play sports and even have dogs wandering freely about. He also shows that prisoners respect Raphael for his own prison experience, even calling him a brother.

There’s no way to downplay the violence, however. Some prisoners were burned to death in riots, which is by no means a pleasant fate. In fact, the Red Command lives near Guards for protection in Pavilion C, because violence could break out at any time. One inmate compares prison to a pressure cooker, and Rowe seems lucky to have avoided any frays.

On top of that, some prisoners hate the food at Porho Velho, and sometimes cook their own. While this suggests some freedom for prisoners, it also indicates poor quality in the prison. In fact, at one point a prisoner tries to feed a little puppy some of the food, and it rejects it! It’s both a cute and poignant scene in this episode. The statement, “Not even a dog would eat this food!” sounds purely anecdotal, which is why it’s funny to actually see it captured on film. It also suggests that, to some degree, the prisoners can have a sense of humor.

Another thing: Just about everyone agrees that the prison is understaffed. So, when Rowe reverses roles and spends time among the Guards, he notes how both the prisoners and Guards all move with caution. Rowe interviews a prison tower Guard, who says he saw 400 prisoners riot with sticks, knives, and fire, painting it in primitive yet undoubtedly accurate terms.

The Good with the Bad: The Episode’s Most Positive Moments

Rowe’s Wisdom

One of Raphael Rowe’s strengths is he takes the good with the bad. Rather than simply noting everything terrible in prison, he’s quick to pair the negatives with positives.  This makes Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons more humane, and viewers more comfortable. In his own way, Rowe tries to convince prisoners to curb their violent ways. He tells some people who, even if they face harsh injustice, they shouldn’t decapitate others, remove their hearts or burn them alive. It’s sort of obvious point for most people, but something that needs to be said more often at Porto Velho.
Rowe asks them flat-out, “Do you want to die just because you belong to a faction?” A prisoner responds, “The gang war will be over only when everybody’s eliminated.” While it’s a bleak assessment, Raphael calls it a “cycle of violence and deprivation,” and suggests that the trend could be reversed, even if gradually.

Rowe also tries to examine why some people are repeat offenders. He asks one young man how he ended up back, and it’s a sad scene. Quite simply, the guy says he couldn’t find work so he turned to theft and was imprisoned again. Sometimes it really is that simple, no matter how much further we try to analyze it. Some of the prison’s perks, like visitor’s day (which includes conjugal visits), are both positive and negative. According to Rowe, this tends to embolden prisoners, as they get a taste of the outside world, and begin to miss home more. However, Rowe doesn’t only dwell on that aspect. He notes how it’s also humanizing, and that these people need love if they can get it.

Hints at Reform

Rowe also interviews “Mr. Rocha,” the Justice Secretary for the State of Rondonia.
Rocha says that prisons need peace. Though it sounds like an empty platitude, and prisons don’t seem designed to be peaceful, it nevertheless is better than saying prisons need war. In fact, Porto Velho at least [italics]could become more peaceful — perhaps even through benign reforms. It’s already true that, in some cases, sentences can be reduced by working. If inmates can learn a trade, it might help them escape the aforementioned cycle of violence and deprivation

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There is also the Acuda Project, run by ex-inmates and sanctioned by prison authorities.
It is designed to teach life skills and spiritual cleansing. When Rowe visits the Acuda Project, he notes how people there are able to laugh, unlike other areas of Porto Velho. In fact, the prisoners undergo a mud bath cleansing ritual, complete with a tea shower. Acuda is about equality and abandoning gang affiliations, which definitely hints at a way out.

What are your thoughts on this episode of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, on Porto Velho and prison life? Let us know in the comments!