The highly-anticipated NETFLIX documentary on Cyprus’ central prison aired this week, with the star of the series showing disbelief at the “utopian” penitentiary that went from suicides to weddings under the direction of a reformist warden.
Wrongfully convicted Raphael Rowe, the presenter of NETFLIX series “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” who spent a week as an inmate in Nicosia Central Prisons, did not hide his skepticism in the episode “Cyprus: The Utopian Prison” that aired Wednesday on the American subscription streaming service.
Rowe, who was assigned a cell mate and went through a regular prison routine -cameras and microphones notwithstanding- was shocked at how prison guards who used to go tough on inmates years ago were now being trained to be more compassionate.
A turnaround moment
During a conversation on camera, a prison officer told Rowe in front of prison warden Anna Aristotelous that she made him cry for an inmate for the first time in his 28 years on the job.
“The new director came in, saying just one word, human, trying to instill into the entire staff that you’re dealing with human beings, not animals,” the officer said.
Aristotelous told Rowe that she wanted to treat inmates more humanely, with the puzzled British journalist wondering whether this could all be true or just a political stunt.
“We help people to develop, to change, to reform, and to successfully reintegrate into society,” the warden said.
Rowe, who went on a TV show on Wednesday to promote his series on the toughest prisons around the world, said he realized prison reform efforts were "real" in Cyprus where they do things "very differently."
Aristotelous, who was regularly cheered by jailed asylum seekers, was described by the narrator as an attorney who worked with the justice ministry on prison reform before she took over the prison in 2014, following a number of incidents including inmate deaths and suicides.
These foreign nationals, described in the documentary as "illegal migrants" mostly from Africa, did not deserve to be behind bars on just a migration violation, Aristotelous argued.
But Rowe, who was released in 2000 after a court of appeals overturned his own conviction in the UK, has been speaking publicly also against botched criminal investigations.
Lifer sees prison as rehabilitation
The make-believe inmate, who was himself one of three men wrongfully imprisoned on murder charges back in 1988, also struck up a conversation during lunch with 26-year-old Lovepreet Singh from India, who told the British visitor “food is good” behind bars in Nicosia.
'I thought my life was finished' a lifer told Rowe, adding 'but now I feel good because there are a lot of opportunities inside'
Sigh, who came to Cyprus to work on a farm, is serving a life sentence in Nicosia after he was convicted in the death of a 21-year-old Indian male back in June 2020 who died moments after a big street fight in downtown Nicosia.
“I turned my face because they were attacking me,” Sigh said, adding that as he turned away he hit back with the knife that belonged to one of his attackers.
Asked whether he was tried for manslaughter or murder, Sigh said “no, it was for murder.”
Although no motive was specified during the trial, Sigh, who was represented by a public defender, was convicted following an admission to premeditated charges according to redacted court documents.
“I thought my life was finished,” Singh told Rowe, adding “but now I feel good because there are a lot of opportunities inside” prison.
“There’s not many people I meet who say prison is good,” Rowe said.
"It’s not prison, it’s a rehabilitation center," Singh replied.
The documentary showed how inmates enjoyed leisure activities and sports, with prison oddities including a giant piano fountain, co-ed bingo nights, and African migrants bursting into song and chanting “Anna Queen of the Prison” whenever the warden made her rounds.
Rowe, who was invited to attend a prison wedding between two inmates before his time was up, remained skeptical about the future of the effort but took into consideration the reoffending rate that had dropped according to Aristotelous.