Blog Insider San Pedro Jail: The Prisoner’s Town in the Heart of La Paz, Bolivia by Andrea Carrubba

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In La Paz, Boliva, over 2,000 prisoners and their families live in an area the size of a football field. San Pedro Prison was built in 1895, designed to house 500 people and now it is a tangle of shops, churches, kindergartens, soccer fields and tiny houses: a small town, entirely populated by inmates.

The policemen oversee the building and they regulate access to friends and family visiting, everything else is completely self-managed by prisoners. The “Council of Delegates” is elected by the inmates and it manages the life of the prison. At the top of the structure,  the President of delegates Victor Hugo Mendoza maintains relationships with prison institutions and with the operators and volunteers who work inside the prison. The State Governament provides the daily maintenance for each inmate, with which the Council commits to buy food and basic necessities. The roles, within the prison population, are well delineated. All prisonoers must pay a montly fee to their section and are obliged to work the same amount of hours to support community works without payment.

Every prisoner can provide for themselves and for his family by working and it is possible to live together in the same cell, including minor children. In theory it is a great example of direct self-government, free-market and an excellent alternative to the alienating imprisonment of penitenziary systems in which Bolivans are accustomed. But the reality of San Pedro is not exactly this. Imagine a city where, for the most part, there are criminals and the majority of them are were arrested for drug trafficking and smuggling; where the murderess has more respect then the honest person and where the rapists suffer extorsion by the section and, for this, they are not isolated and removed by the collective, but they live in the same because they are a source of income; where every inmate is obliged to pay a sum for the entrance in the section, for the rent of the bed in a collective cell or the rent of the single or doble cell, at the contrary: he became a “without section” and he can sleep under a covered door or some cold and wet alley or in a common big room; where payment for a working day is around one euro and those who complain are beaten up before by the “Disciplina”, a kind of internal police composed by inmates at the service of the Council and then punished to work, without payment, in the prison kitchen harassed and humiliated every day.

For those with drug dependency issues: “This place is the hell and the heaven at the same time”, says Patchoul, an old consumer in his fourth arrest for drug dealing. “A paradise, because there is everything you need: cocaine and coca paste, marijuana, alcohol and prostitutes; and all cheaper than outside. And Hell, because you can never stop, and every time you come out, you are always worse than when you were entered.“

This is San Pedro, really, a place where the police corruption allows all this and even, until a few years ago, authorized guided tours within the prison.The most populated penitentiary in the poorest Country of Latin America, where child labor is legal and where a policeman earns the minimum wage guaranteed by the constitution and, despite the declared socialist system, even health care is private and the capital is the only means for social mobility.  In this Country life is hard, as it is also hard to live in jail, what else does not seem that the metaphor of Bolivian society: a good idea that is going bad.

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