Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons ep. 202 recap: ‘Ukraine: The Prison in a War Zone’


Episode 202 of Netflix’s “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” takes us inside Ukraine’s Zhytomyr prison — a dangerous financially broke prison in a war-torn country.

Ukraine’s Zhytomyr Prison has seen better days — or has it? Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons shows viewers that currently, the prison is quite broke and understaffed. However, in the past, the prison served as a Soviet gulag, which lent it a brutal and strict reputation. This may be why, even though inmates have the freedom to roam within its confines, none have successfully escaped.

Raphael Rowe returns in this episode of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons.  We immediately see that every prison he encounters is a different experience. Because Ukraine’s been at war with Russia since 2014, Row notes several related factors impacting Zhytomyr Prison. The struggling economy has set Ukraine’s crime rate soaring, and the country is basically bankrupt. This is why there are only 600 prisoners there. The country can’t afford to adequately fund its prisons).

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Also, for Rowe, knowing that it used to be a Soviet gulag — that inmates were routinely tortured by corrupt guards — it probably adds to the eerie quality surrounding the place. It’s also a chaotic operation, at least compared to other prisons he’s been in. When he arrives to be treated as a prisoner, there is no paperwork, no fingerprinting, no picture taken, or anything like that. He is just strip searched and locked up in Colony 4 — the lowest security section of the prison. If things weren’t strange enough for Rowe, he finds it odd that there are big windows with no bars in this section, yet no one tries to escape. In fact, no one has escaped Zhytomyr in its 110-year history.

Johnny from Cameroon

This episode of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons introduces some rather fascinating people. One is Johnny from Cameroon — the only black man in Zhytomyr. Although Rowe says the “Soviet culture of suspicion and silence seems to live on” in the prison, you wouldn’t find that in the happy-go-lucky Johnny. You also wouldn’t know he’s serving a 10-year sentence for murder.

How does Johnny fair in Zhytomyr? Surprisingly well, actually (at least according to this episode).
Johnny’s advice on getting along in prison? Avoid learning about other inmate’s crimes, to the extent possible. Another factor in Johnny’s safety is that, honestly, he seems nice. He runs a singing club at Zhytomyr, and the other prisoners seem to like and respect him. In fact, he urges Rowe to sing a Ukrainian song with him, for the other prisoners, in an unexpected, funny and humanizing scene.

On the more serious side, Johnny talks about his conviction. Almost like an old blues song, he killed his girlfriend after catching her cheating on him. He says the murder was an accident, and that he was in a state of shock. Still, he doesn’t absolve himself of the blame. He says he wants and deserves to suffer the consequences alone.  Even his own mother doesn’t even know he’s in prison! It’s a fascinating story, and one could easily imagine a movie about it.

A Harsh Life and Hard Work

At Zhytomyr, prisoners have the appearance of relative freedom. Raphael Row says they “roam around the desolate grounds at will.” This, of course, doesn’t mean they’re free to escape, or that it’s paradise on earth. For example, the shower has no hot water, the bathroom smells disgusting, and there’s a place called “The Pit,” where prisoners are punished.

Also, the prison has a food budget of 60 cents per day (that’s right — 60 cents per day)! Now, even if someone’s prejudiced against prisoners, they’d have to be pretty hardcore to advocate that level of budget restriction. Indeed, Raphael Rowe becomes a prison food critic, saying the food is disgusting, calling it “survival food.”  Undoubtedly, this is one of the strongest signs of the prison being broke.

In fact, some prisoners claim it was actually better under the Soviets, in terms of resources and discipline. When it was a gulag, the Soviets had imposed morning physical drills, although they are only voluntary now. Also due to the Soviets, the prison has a metalwork factory and sawmill — harking back to when prisoners were forced to work. Some people do still work there, but now it’s just voluntary, and the prison lacks income as a result.

Still, Rowe is surprised to see a convicted murderer allowed to chop and process wood with an ax. When interviewed, the man says the wood is exported and prisoners are paid for their work.
It’s not all smiles and paychecks, though. A few weeks before Rowe arrived, an inmate at a prison farm raped and murdered a female prison guard with an ax. It’s a bit disconcerting, then, that some prisoners are allowed to use chainsaws.  Still, they don’t call it Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons for no reason.

Meeting Serhiy Tkach: One of Ukraine’s Worst Serial Killers

Unlike Colony 4, Colony 8 is high security and contains some of Ukraine’s worst criminals. This includes Serhiy Tkach, convicting of killing 37 young females in 2008. A former Russian Police Officer (who used his training to conceal his crimes), his targets were raped, suffocated and otherwise defiled. On top of that, at least six people were wrongfully convicted for Tkach’s crimes.  It’s one of Inside the World’s Toughest Prison’s darkest moments so far.

Understandably, Rowe is creeped out by the man, especially when Tkach casually says things like, “Women are guilty of everything.” Still, because stories at Zhytomyr can never be simple, Tkach
ironically reveals that he has his own wife and daughter (which he attained while imprisoned), and that they changed his mind about wanting to be put to death!

Unconditional Love?

In fact, Rowe meets Tkach a 2nd time, wanting to ask his wife, Elena, about their relationship.
As it turns out, the couple have a 3-day conjugal visit every 2 months. Fascinatingly, Tkach is allowed access to kitchen knives in the conjugal room, while meeting his wife — though Tkach explains, “These are not weapons, just household items.” Plus, during the conjugal visits, Guards check every hour to make sure she is still alive (what a relief!).

On top of his being a serial killer, rapist, pedophile, and necrophiliac, there’s a significant age difference: Elena is 25, Tkach is 65. That’s obviously not the only reason Rowe shakes his head when they gently kiss, but it’s yet another added layer of weirdness. When asked about his murders, Elena says she doesn’t feel negative about Tkach, although she would want someone like him punished if her own family was harmed (again, what a relief!).

Rowe says she’s articulate and intelligent and recognizes that he’s dangerous. Still, it’s something. It’s really something. Row calls meeting Tkach the creepiest moment of his life.  Still, it makes Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons a fascinating thing to watch.

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The Guard’s Life

When Rowe reverses roles and becomes a Guard, it’s also a strange experience.
At one point he joins the Guards in searching for weapons, even though dangerous objects are openly lying about, including broken glass. Raphael calls it farcical. The Guards hardly have it easy at Zhytomyr. For them, a shift lasts 24 hours, then they have 3 days off. The tendency seems to be of low salaries and low morale. Still, it is a job, no doubt about it.

What are your thoughts on this episode of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons? Does Zhytomyr sound like a fun place? Let us know in the comments!