Friday, August 29, 2014

San Pedro Prison,La Paz, Bolivia - Different from what we heard

Once you pass the thick walls and the security gates, any resemblance to a normal jail disappears: there are children playing, market stalls, restaurants, hairdressers and even a hotel. It looks more like the streets of El Alto, Bolivia's poorest neighbourhood that sprawls on the outskirts of La Paz, than a prison.


San Pedro prison or El penal de San Pedro (Saint Peter's Prison) is the largest prison in La Paz, Bolivia renowned for being a society within itself is home to about 1,500 inmates. The prison was originally designed to hold 250 inmates and now holds between 1,300 and 1,500.

The prison is divided into eight sectors and facilities range from miserable to luxurious.

There are no guards, no uniforms or metal bars on the cell windows. This relative freedom comes at a price: inmates have to pay for their cells, so most of them have to work inside the jail, selling groceries or working in the food stalls. Others work as hairdressers, laundry staff, carpenters, shoe-shine boys or TV and radio repairmen.

Significantly different from most correctional facilities, inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The sale of cocaine base to visiting tourists gives those inside a significant income and an unusual amount of freedom within the prison walls. Elected leaders enforce the laws of the community, with stabbings being commonplace. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children that live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel.

Inmates must purchase their own cells from other inmates because cells are not assigned by or run by any uniformed prison officials. The names of the housing section are Posta, Pinos, Alamos, San Martin, Prefectura, Palmar, Guanay and Cancha. Posta, Pinos, and Alamos are considered the higher end communities and act similar to gated communities. Each section has a rating that indicates its housing quality. Representatives of the higher end communities usually lock non-residents out around 9:00PM. The lower end communities are said to house the drug addicted inmates and are identified as the most dangerous at nighttime where most stabbings occur.Each section operates like a small village or neighborhood. Each has its own courtyard, restaurants, markets, and services.

"If you have money you can live like a king," an inmate told me. Money can buy you accommodation in the "posh" sections of the prison - one of the best is Los Pinos.

The wealthiest area "La Posta" provides inmates with private bathrooms, a kitchen, and cable television; such cells are sold for around $1,500-1,800 Bolivianos. Wealthier inmates can buy luxury cells, that may include 3 floors, and a hot tub. One inmate paid for a second floor extension to be built on his cell, giving him views across the city. However, most of those inside the prison live in cramped conditions with it being common for single-room cells to accommodate five people.

Almost all living sections contain market stalls and places to play games such as billiards, poker, chess, or in some, video games, kiosks selling fresh juice, and food stalls. Cells cost between $1,000 and $1,500 and are bought for the duration of an inmate's sentence.

The canteen and restaurants are owned and run by the inmates, while other places sell ingredients for those with kitchens to cook for themselves.

One of the larger open areas doubles as a small football pitch, with teams representing each sector regularly competing. Within the walls there is also a hotel for visiting guests, a hospital, and multiple churches.

In the poor areas of the prison, inmates have to share small cells.

For more details you can see here at americas_inside_a_bolivian_jail