Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons season 3 premiere recap: Costa Rica: Prison on a Knife-Edge


Netflix series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons returns. First stop: Costa Rica’s dangerous La Reforma Penitentiary.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons returns, with Raphael Rowe taking us exactly where the show’s title suggests. This time it’s Costa Rica’s La Reforma Penitentiary.

Like many prisons visited by Rowe, La Reforma offers squalid conditions, overcrowding and little in the way of redeeming quality. One can quickly see why it’s considered one of Latin America’s most feared prisons.

In many ways, the prison population is dominated by the drug cartels. If you end up sharing the same roof, you’d better not get on their collective bad side.

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As usual. Rowe gets checked in, inspected and passes the test. However, as an educational example of contraband, he shows us a potentially deadly piece of sharpened steel.

Before he really gets acquainted with the area, Rowe asks one inmate, oddly called Mr. Lollipop, for advice on getting by. Mr. Lollipop says to respect every inmate equally. It sounds like practical advice, and one hopes it would work.

Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons shows some prisons to be quite primitive in design and outlook, and La Reforma is no exception. For example, there is no electricity there. Still, at least he gets a mattress (as illustrated in season 2, some prisons actually don’t do that!).


As Raphael enters the general population, some inmates line up to shout “Barco” at him, with Barco meaning “boat.” Basically, it’s their unique way of intimidating new inmates, similar to the film The Shawshank Redemption, where inmates shout “Fresh fish!” to new members of the community.

Rowe says it’s key to show no fear. However, that can be a bit tricky when other inmates immediately try to boss you around. Luis, a gang leader, controls where Rowe and other inmates will sleep. If that’s not enough, Row has to pay for his bed.

They are cramped quarters — 28 people in the cell, with no fans or air conditioning. Not bad enough for you? Their shower is merely buckets of water. Rowe meets inmates like Michael, who is a few years into a 35-year sentence for murder.

Day 2 on B-block

On day two, Luis hands out tasks. Rowe cleans garbage out of some type of drainage system. The smell must be horrendous. Still, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor. When he is shown some of the prison’s food, he says he might as well just eat the filth he’s cleaned up.

Like him, the prisoners make do with what they have. They have no gym equipment, so over the years, they’ve made their own. In case you didn’t watch season 2 of Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, it should be mentioned that Row served 12 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

He now says working out helped keep him sane for those 12 years. It’s easy to see that. In addition to it being practical to gain strength in prison, the discipline of working out may indeed help one’s sanity, and give someone goals.

He talks with Michael some more, and we learn Michael has been shot numerous times. As proof, he shows that there still a bullet in his calf. He tells us his father was a crack addict who beat him with a belt. It’s probably not just a made-up sob story, either.

Rowe calls the prison a school for crime. He agrees with Michael that people who weren’t dangerous before usually come out dangerous.

At B-block’s cafeteria a former US marine, Glen Davis, is shown serving papaya to inmates. He’s serving over 30 years in prison for murder and kidnapping. Now Glen runs errands to keep on people’s good sides.

Samantha and Elian

In an interesting and poignant interview, we get to know two inmates — Jason Samantha and Elian. Much to the chagrin of other inmates, the two are in a relationship and regularly face discrimination and threats as a result.

Samantha had smuggled drugs into prison, and Elian was a  burglar. Despite the odds, the two strive to have a loving relationship. They share the same bed and even have a pet cat.

Rowe respects them for standing up for who they are, and it seems at least some prisoners respect them for their courage under adverse conditions.

Maximum security wing of La Reforma

When touring the maximum security wing, Rowe is given a stab vest. It’s an immediate sign of increased danger. Raphael stands with another guard above prisoner’s cells, and they can peer down from above the cages.

The guard says prisoners throw waste at them sometimes. He also discusses an attempted mass breakout after corrupt guards smuggled in guns.

We also meet a disturbed criminal named Alex, and it’s possible he wasn’t disturbed until they locked him up in solitary confinement. They call that Las Tumbas, or the tombs. For Alex, self-abuse and self-mutilation were common, and he shows us some of his self-made scars. While the prison didn’t command him to do it, it surely inspired him to, and one doubts he’s alone.

Hell or Disneyland

Incredibly, the prison isn’t all nearly this bad. In fact, the low-security section is much more modern. An inmate there named Jani says that to compare this section to the other blocks is comparing hell to Disneyland.

Not only does this section have electricity, but it has an education unit, a soccer field, a gym, and modern kitchens! Jani is doing time for robbing drug dealers.

In the kitchen, a cook named Marco Antonio confirms Raphael’s suspicion: A different environment creates different behavior. Marco says that, had he not been transferred, he might be dead.

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Marco Feoli, Costa Rica’s Minister of Justice, suggests that, if you treat people with dignity, they’re less likely to be monsters. However, as Raphael Rowe puts it: Spending money on reforming criminals doesn’t win you votes.

That’s it for this Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons recap! What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!