Having spent 12 years in prison wrongly convicted, Raphael Rowe knows all-too-well what it’s like to be isolated from the world. Keeping a positive mindset, Raphael talks about self-isolation, lockdown, COVID-19 conspiracy theories and offers words of wisdom to people struggling during this pandemic.

Interview by Ben Farrin

Hello Raphael, how are you?
I’m very well actually. I say I am very well, but like everyone else I’m keeping my head low and just cracking on trying to get as many things done as I can.

How are you coping with the lockdown and self-isolation?
In all honesty, I’m quite relaxed about it all. If you want to compare self-isolation with real isolation when you don’t have a choice, it’s very different. I’m getting a lot of things done work-wise and I’m getting a lot of things done in the house. I am able to enjoy time with the family, and very fortunate that the weather is good, so making the most of that! But there’s a much bigger picture, especially for those families that are suffering as a result of this COVID-19 illness. I am fortunate enough at this stage that nobody has been affected by it directly in my family, even if there are signs of symptoms here and there, nobody has been harmed in a way that many other families have. So, we’re very fortunate and grateful from that perspective.

What do you think when you hear people compare this current pandemic lockdown and self-isolation with being in prison?
Given my experience some people try and compare self-isolation and social distancing to being in prison. Some people say “no it’s not”. I think people’s prison is in their own head. When you are a convicted prisoner you move into a different mindset in order to cope with that enforced confinement. I think people are going through that enforced confinement now. There is no gun at your head or guard locking you in and you’re having to do it via self-isolation. So, there’s no comparison in the mindset of somebody having to self-isolate vs somebody being enforced to be confined. We shouldn’t compare the two or dismiss either as being worse than the other. Of course, prison (in my view) is much, much, much worse than what people are experiencing now! But that’s not to say we need to undermine the suffering of some people who may be living in a one bedroom flat with multiple people. Trying to stick to social distancing, self-isolation, and that in itself must be a big challenge unless they can turn it into a positive.

So, mindset, I suppose is key.
Yes! I think mindset is key to all of this. I think if you can, move your mind into a better frame. So, rather than get up and stress about not going to work or not being able to go to college, keep yourself busy. I’m studying criminology at the moment and I’ve not picked up a criminology book since this pandemic started because there are more important things at play, and although my studies are important, I think colleges have got to recognise (and my uni recognises) that they can’t do things the way they were doing them. That means I can’t do things the way they expect me to do them. So, it frees up my time and my mind and instead of banging out my essays or banging out the things I need to do, I can do it at my own pace, as long as I keep communicating with my university. I think that’s the same as people who are working, bringing up their children and trying to do something with their lives, it’s all about the mindset. If you can shift it into “right, today I am going to do A, B and C”, you know self-schedule and arrange things in your life, before you know it you get to the end of the day and you think God, where did that go? If you can keep doing that, occupying your time, and your mind, that for me is key.

I know it can’t be compared to what you have been through in prison, but does self-isolation and this lockdown have any mental effects on you at all and do you feel restricted?
I think there’s a different mindset where I can shrug my shoulders and say to myself “this is not isolation”. I have a park for example probably 200 metres away from my front door and I’ve been using that as my exercise space. I think what a privilege it is that I can walk out to the park, like many other people who live locally, and be able to suck up the fresh air in lovely weather like it is at the moment, look at the trees and see other people. It’s a good walk, it’s not a big park, but it’s a park and when I compare that to some of the exercise yards I walked in, and around in prison it’s ridiculous. I probably had exercise outside in cages smaller than peoples flats and homes. At times like that, I do reflect and I think this is a privilege. We may be in isolation, but we do have the space to exercise our limbs and see other people enjoying themselves. I, like everyone else, am following the guidelines and my movements have been restricted, but I don’t feel effected by it in anyway whatsoever.

Hopefully the weather will stay nice and people will be having BBQs and enjoying themselves in their gardens whilst keeping safe distances this Easter weekend.
I did that last weekend with my neighbours and they sat on their side but we had some banter and a chat, we drank our wine and beer and they drank theirs. We ate our food and they ate theirs – there was no sharing and no cross contamination but it was bizarre, and at times thought we could share each-others garden, but as grown-ups that’s not the right thing to be doing. It was all part of the charade of having it “over the fence”.

Raphael RoweHave you struggled to get any household essentials?
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to book in a delivery, so I have shopping delivered. A lot of the stuff that I ordered doesn’t get delivered, some of the basics such as pasta and rice. Initially when I went into the shops to get bits and pieces there was just nothing on the shelves, I’ve never seen anything like it. I kind of thought this is like some kind of movie scene. It felt uncomfortable to think that that is what it had come to. It didn’t need to have come to that, but it did because people had started to feel very scared and panic kicked in. People thought if they didn’t get the items they needed to snap-up, then they wouldn’t be able to get them which has never been the case. I haven’t been out to the shops since last week and have been making-do with what I have got at home.

I’ve just finished watching the movie Contagion and it’s surreal how similar the movie is to COVID-19 now, from self-isolation to lockdown to how the virus originated. Some people say Corona Virus is linked to 5G, others say it’s a manmade attack on humanity. What’s your thoughts to these conspiracy theories?
People shouldn’t waste their energy on things that they don’t have the real answers to. Let’s look at the facts, the reality right now, there are people that are falling ill to this virus. However it got here, that’s something to be investigated at another point in the future maybe. But the fact of the matter is that people are falling ill, being taken to hospital and are dying because if this illness is stopping them breathing – that’s how I understand it. It’s effecting their own ability to keep themselves alive. There are people out there working day and night to try and keep those individuals alive. They are not being as successful as they would want to be. Those are the facts. That’s what I am working with and what everybody should be working with at this stage, what’s right in front of us. How it got here, and all the other conspiracies’ as to why it’s here should be put aside until it can be dealt with. We need to deal with the present and then maybe have a look at the past, if there is a past to even look at. It’s convenient I suspect for some people to say it came from and was created for some other purpose. Those things often don’t prove to be true. And if they are true, there is always someone, somewhere out there, who will know that that’s what happened and someone in a high enough position who will reveal it at some point.

How do you feel the government have dealt with COVID-19?
I’ve been shocked actually. My thoughts, like everybody else’s I suppose goes to Boris Johnson and his family. I’ve spent time with his sister so I know how close a family they are. I’ve been jaw-dropped when I first heard that those leading the fight in this country have fallen ill or shown symptoms from this illness. You’d think they would take THE MOST careful precautions because we needed them fighting this from the front because they are our leaders. I think that just reveals how incompetent some officials, even at the most senior level can be. From the outset, they would have far more information than we, the Joe Public, journalists and even other senior politicians have, long before we start to find out about these things. So, you’d think that they would have taken the necessary precautions to protect themselves as well as the public at the right time. But it doesn’t seem that they did that.

Yes, it’s terrible to hear about Boris Johnson being admitted to intensive care. What do you think this pandemic teaches us as humans?
Well, that’s still to be revealed but I think at this stage there’s a number of things going on, one it makes people appreciate the little things that can make their life different. Just spending time with their family, not running off to work thinking that’s the most important thing, money and being driven by our work. The sense that you can walk out of your door and walk down the street and just that simple act in itself, of being able to walk out of your house front door, and walk down the street without a purpose and walk out aimlessly is a privilege which I think a lot of people are starting to grasp. The simple fact that when you are at home and are self-isolating, scratching your head, think – “what can I do?”. All of a sudden, you’ll find something to do. These are simple things like just phoning a loved one and having a conversation with someone who you’ve been desperate to talk to, but have never really been able to have that intimate conversation with. Those two things; that conversation and being able to walk out, are very indicative of what behaviour is like in prison. Let’s take a drug addict who ends up in prison, they realise that those people they love and care for are the only people they really have. At times like this, that’s what people are discovering – people’s worth and what jobs are important, like the NHS. Right now, we’re dependent on those hard-working individuals, whatever their roles, to keep people alive. It’s things like that we’re learning. We do talk about community and it bringing people together but it’s also something that divides people. People walk around each other when they are walking in the street because they are told to keep social distances. So, they see each other and we are also suspicious of each other. That in itself can pose problems because it’s going to take a long time before we shrug that feeling and behaviour off, even when we are allowed to emerge from self-isolation.

What’s the first thing you are going to do when we are allowed to emerge from self-isolation and lockdown?
Get on with my job I suppose. Go and do the things that I have been unable to do like travel. Travel to another country but also to go and see my parents, who are elderly so I want to go and see them and just get on with life. What I’d really like to see apart from doing things for myself is see how people will react. Will they appreciate more what they have got? Or will we quickly try and grasp and grab everything with a hunger that we had before this illness took hold?

What advice would you give to somebody, maybe of a younger generation that is not used to self-isolation, lockdown, and might be struggling to cope?
I think they need to take a look around them at what’s going on and learn from it. But I also think self-isolation and lockdown is not a time to scratch your head and pull your eyes out and wonder what you’re gonna do, and just consume Netflix (unless you’re watching Inside The World’s Toughest Prisons [laughs]). But it’s a difficult one because it’s horses for courses. What people can realise is that there is more to life than money and work. That’s key for me, building friendships. People will think they have friends but at times like this they realise that they’re on their own and that’s not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing to be on your own during self-isolation, doing something without anybody around you. You will learn from any mistake you make, or you build your character and resilience. This will stand them in good stead in the future.

Brilliant. We touched on travel earlier and I noticed on social media you have been doing quite a lot of travelling abroad prior to COVID-19… Are there any new project updates you can share with us?
Well, I am working on a book at the moment, a lot of my fan base have been asking for quite some time to write a personal book. So, I am writing about my own life, my journey and a book of motivation and inspiration, but also a book of some of the darker experiences that I witnessed as a former miscarriage of justice victim. I’m also working on a Netflix project which I am hoping will be out very soon.

Exciting! How do you think COVID-19 effects life in prison?
It’s scary! I have been inside some prisons where the overcrowding or the confinement situation where 5, 10, 15 prisoners are being held in the same space. It scares me to think that if 1 or 2 people contract this illness whilst in any of these prisons then it will spread around the prison if the authorities are unable to isolate that individual before it does. But the simple fact that if it’s got into a prison like the ones I am describing, then there would be no controlling it. I suspect that the health of some of these prisoners is not as good as it could be anyway so many would probably die. Worst still, those that do contract it (and I suspect that there will be a lot around the world in prisons like I’ve described that are overcrowded) there are no resources, they just don’t exist in some of these prisons, to treat these individuals. It concerns me that the public would also argue that a prisoner does not deserve a ventilator or the type of care that somebody on the outside who has not committed a crime, deserves, first. That could be something that happens. But it is worrying – we already have it here in the UK where prisoners have contracted the virus. Staff who also work in those prisons have actually died from the virus and I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.

I was reading just yesterday that it had been reported that 4,000 short-term prisoners in England and Wales would be temporarily released. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s a good and humane move by the authorities to release people that have short time left on their sentences. I’ve heard they are releasing pregnant women. It also releases the resources for the staff. Many staff have not been going to work because they are scared or have fallen ill. I think they need to do as much as they can possibly do in any prison, anywhere in the world, to reduce overcrowding, especially in those places, where the threat of COVID-19 could end up killing many prisoners. If that means releasing prisoners who have a very short time left on their sentences and they are not violent, or sex offenders, then that can only be a good thing.

What are your top 3 shows on Netflix right now?
I’ve been watching the fourth season of Money Heist – I find that really powerful with good characters. I just started watching Tiger King – I tried to watch the first episode but the character is already annoying me because he’s a bit self-centred, but I’ve heard it’s meant to be good, and I’ve just finished watching The English Game. It’s about football and the FA Cup. It’s set in the 1800s, when public schoolboys were competing against the working-class man for the FA Cup. It gives you a potted history of how that developed and why the FA Cup is so important today.

What positives do you think we can take from the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think people are relaxing. There are stresses, there’s no question – there are lots of stresses and strains out there for individuals. But I am looking out of my window right now and I can see a man pushing a buggy in the middle of the road, running. So, he’s jogging whilst he’s pushing his child, unlikely to be doing that on a Tuesday morning at any other time. There’s a positive. I’ve just seen a woman walk past with her two kids probably heading towards the park I mentioned earlier on. I think that the positives are that people, despite their money worries, despite their concerns for their jobs (and I think these are big concerns and they have been half-addressed by the government), I think people are relaxing. That for me is one of the big positives. When people have settled into the idea that they have got to live slightly differently, while we try to contain, remain in self-isolation and deal with this illness people are relaxing about their life and their situation where they can.