Doin’ Time

Welcome to La Paz, Bolivia; the city where anything can be bought, anyone can be bribed, and so anything goes. That´s how I ended up going to San Pedro Prison last week, on a tour guided by ¨Luis¨, who was incarcerated for ¨drug trafficking¨(real name and crime undisclosed for protection). We arrived at Plaza San Pedro in the morning and lingered briefly before a snaggle-toothed character (another prisoner) named Kenny approached us and asked if we were looking for him.

Shitting in our pants as we awaited the next instructions from ¨Kenny¨, an inmate whose job was to get outside the prison walls to bring people like us in

Shitting in our pants as we awaited the next instructions from ¨Kenny¨, an inmate whose job was to get outside the prison walls to bring curious travelers like ourselves in

¨Yes,¨we replied reluctantly…and with the magical two-handed handshake of kinship he led us past the prison guards and smuggled us into a little room where we paid him 250 bolivianos (about 35 USD), for ¨protection¨ by (and from) other prisoners. 250 bolivianos is apparently the amount it takes to keep the inmates from resenting us as it pays for the prisoners’ relatively luxurious lifestyles of alcoholism, gambling, and cocaine production. Don´t hate the playa, hate the game.

San Pedro prison is known for being the most bizarre prison in the world, where prisoners enjoy luxuries provided to them by other prisoners. It functions the same way the real world does: money makes the prison go round. The more you can pay, the better the cell you get, the better you eat, the more protection you have. These guys just happen to be inside the walls instead of on the outside. Inside, there are rules and laws that apply- but unlike other prisons, there is still a sense of democracy as to who gets to rule the roost. In a way there is a greater democracy than on the outside because there are no bureaucratic assholes taking control (yet).
rules and regulations

rules and regulations

Inside the prison´s main plaza, inmates frolic to and fro, continuing their leisurely daily lives of chess, toys, and cocaine production.

Inside the prison´s main plaza, inmates frolic to and fro, continuing their leisurely daily lives of chess, toys, and cocaine production.

A little girl comes out of her father´s cell as she hears us walk by, knowing we will offer her candy. The smile on her face upon receipt of the lolly broke my heart.

A little girl comes out of her father´s cell as she hears us walk by, knowing we will offer her candy. The smile on her face upon receipt of the lolly broke my heart.

The ¨one-star¨ cell block where real estate is the cheapest. It´s also where prisoners get stabbed during drunken fights. Just like the ghettos of the outside world.

The ¨one-star¨ cell block where real estate is the cheapest. It´s also where prisoners get stabbed during drunken fights. Just like the ghettos of the outside world.

da mess hall

da mess hall

Coke falls like snowflakes (or something) at San Pedro

Coke falls like snowflakes (or something) at San Pedro

They just throw it in tupperware. 100 Bolivianos for a gram.

They just throw it in tupperware. 100 Bolivianos for a gram.

Unlike many Bolivian children living outside the prison, the children raised inside San Pedro are fed every day and spend their days playing with each other (and dressing up as Barney) instead of begging for money and food. On the flip side, although the chance to be educated for any Bolivian child is rare, there is absolutely no hope for the child of an inmate. It´s hard to tell which is a better life in the end. Either way, the situation is devastating.
Unlike many Bolivian children living outside the prison, the children raised inside San Pedro are fed every day and spend their days playing with each other (and dressing up as Barney) instead of begging for money and food. On the flip side, although the chance to be educated for most Bolivian children is rare, there is absolutely no hope for the child of an inmate. It´s hard to tell which is a better life in the end. Either way, the situation is devastating.

My hypothesis is that as word continues to spread about this bizarre attraction, the 250 bolivianos (a very expensive pricetag in Bolivia) from each visitor will continue to fund the lifestyles of the criminals in San Pedro prison and the conditions inside will improve, making the prison safer and ever more popular for the average tourist. As tourism increases, more more money will be fueled into their ¨economy¨. The lifestyles of the criminals inside will continue to thrive and life inside will become evermore appealing to the average Bolivian on the outside struggling to survive. Anyone who wants to be schooled in cocaine production just has to get in. It´s like Harvard. If you got the dough and you´re the best in the business, you´re in, and you can learn all the secrets to success.

Anyway, here´s hoping I don´t get chainsawed to death like in Scarface for blogging about San Pedro. Luis would be in the middle of telling a story during the tour and then all of a sudden go, ¨but don´t tell anyone…this is all in complete confidence¨. Uh right. So that´s why you give tours every day and tell complete strangers all your secrets and offer them nose candy. I think all prisoners inside hope to one day become badass and famous and known to everyone on the ouside. “Tell all your friends I’m the right man for the job” Luis reminded us as we left.

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~ by ceciliabien on January 8, 2009.

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