Recently, the Bolivian government announced plans to close San Pedro Prison in La Paz – one of the most unique prisons in the world. I spent several years working in San Pedro in the late 1990s, and served as National Coordinator of Prison Ministry for the Catholic Church in Bolivia, so a few people have asked me for my thoughts.
First, a bit of background: San Pedro is in the center of the city of La Paz, taking up one square block. Some refer to it as “el panóptico,” but it’s not a true panopticon, and in fact is remarkable not for the omniscient vigilance of prison authorities (there isn't any), but for the relative autonomy of its inmates. It is not atypical of Bolivian prisons, but it’s famous because of its size (second only to Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz) and its central location in the country’s largest and most-visited city. San Pedro, like most Bolivian prisons, is based on a kind of penal colony model: inmates cannot leave the outer bounds of the prison, but within its four walls, they are free to move about and interact largely as they please, resulting in a kind of enclosed village with stores, restaurants, sports leagues, cultural activities, and the same socio-economic divisions that mark the world outside. Guards only come into the inner areas of the prison when problems arise, or for a twice-daily roll-call.
Prisoners buy, sell, and rent cells. In a larger institution like San Pedro, this mini real estate market results in some sections, or cell blocks, of the prison being more affluent than others. Some inmates who cannot afford a cell are actually homeless, sleeping in the chapel, in hallways, or on the floors of friends’ cells.
Many prisons in Bolivia have children living in them. If a child’s parents are incarcerated and there is nobody else – no relatives or godparents, say – able to take care of them, the kids stay with their parents in the prison. They leave to go to school and other programs outside, but return in the afternoon to their “home” behind bars. It’s not ideal, but it keeps families intact, and the responsibility – not to mention joy – of parenting gives the parents reason to work toward release and reinsertion. It also creates a general sense of shared responsibility for creating a safe space for families, and residents who are seen as threats to children are dealt with harshly by their fellow inmates.
Most impressive is the inmates’ system of democratic self-governance. Delegates are elected from each section, or from different sectors (e.g. San Sebastián Prison here in Cochabamba has a large carpentry shop, and there is a delegate specifically for that). An overall delegate is elected for the whole prison, as well. These delegates represent their constituencies to prison authorities or to the press, advocating for prisoners’ needs, and coordinate a variety of activities inside the prison. Sections also have elected secretaries for different areas: health (there is an infirmary in San Pedro, but some sections also bring in other doctors to see residents for mild or chronic conditions and general healthcare), maintenance (in San Pedro, the government really only maintains the outer shell of the prison, while inmates pay for and carry out upkeep in each section – fixing bathrooms, painting walls, etc.), culture and education (there are courses offered in conjunction with the Church and local universities, and many sections have their own small libraries or other facilities such as chess clubs), and sports (each section runs its own football club, with a premier team, a second-tier team, and a team for older players; one section, “Cancha,” has a futsal court in its patio and hosts all games and tournaments). There are also inmate tribunals responsible for an internal justice system in which inmates who commit crimes against other inmates are tried and punished without appealing to the prison’s guards. Some of the architects of Bolivia’s new constitution, passed in 2009, were former political prisoners and inmate delegates, and these political structures inside Bolivia’s prisons served as partial inspiration for both the autonomy and community justice statutes of the new magna carta.
In general, I believe Bolivian prisons are far more humane than prisons in other countries, including the United States. The law states explicitly that the purpose of prisons here is the rehabilitation and reinsertion of inmates. The maximum sentence is thirty years; there is no death penalty. The colony model allows for far less institutionalization, infantilization, and dehumanization of inmates than what is common in the U.S. and elsewhere. Also, Bolivia is not nearly as violent as many other countries. Most inmates are in for drugs, and many of these are low-level “mules.” Many more, especially women, are in for things like bounced checks – essentially debtors prison. The majority of Bolivia’s inmate population has never been sentenced and spends years in prison awaiting trial. This leads to terrible overcrowding – one of the most inhumane elements of most prisons here. The justice system – as distinct from the prison system itself – is awful. “Retardation of justice,” the eternal backlog of court cases, is one of the worst problems. But rampant corruption and general ineptitude also serve to cripple the system. And the police who guard the prisons are also plagued by the twin curses of corruption and ineptitude.
A lot of people know about San Pedro from the book Marching Powder by an inmate I used toknow, Tanzanian Thomas McFadden, and his co-author, Australian Rusty Young. I am not a fan of the book, as I think it distorts reality and aims to sensationalize rather than to highlight all that is truly remarkable about San Pedro and, more importantly, the inmates there. Young met McFadden via the illegal prison tours he used to offer foreign tourists, and the book parallels those tours in many ways: it invites its audience to ogle the inmates in morbid fascination, rather than to empathize, admire, and seek deeper solidarity with them. The level of violence in the prison is exaggerated, implying several murders a month when the reality was closer to one every 18 months or so. Also, a major “highlight” of the book is the unveiling of alleged cocaine production labs inside the prison. I had never heard of such labs, and have asked friends who were in San Pedro at the time and they confirm to me that they didn’t exist (although the book features photos of them). I wonder if they weren’t a fiction created by McFadden and the authorities who were paid off to allow his tourism business to flourish. The drug of choice among San Pedro’s addicts was cocaine base paste – a precursor of powder cocaine that is as concentrated and addictive as crack, but also filthy with toxic chemicals that are later cooked out of the drug in the production processes for powder and rock cocaine. Base is rampant in San Pedro. But powder cocaine is also available there. Street dealers from La Paz get their supplies from the prison’s inmates, as they are cheaper inside the prison. I was always given to understand that these drugs were brought into the prison by the guards themselves. Stolen from supplies seized by police on the outside, prisoners and guards alike could make a handsome profit off the drugs while still maintaining prices lower than those on the outside. I can’t prove these allegations, so perhaps the labs also existed. But it seems unlikely to me that McFadden and his dealer friends would show these labs to unvetted gringo tourists while effectively keeping them secret from their fellow inmates. It makes more sense to me to assume they were created as both a sensational stop on McFadden’s tours, and a way of keeping his cocaine-dealing police contacts out of the story. At any rate, McFadden’s tourism business was not at all popular among the general population in San Pedro. Inmates were made to feel like animals in a zoo, and resented that a relatively well-off foreign inmate would show them off as such. I believe the book largely serves the same purpose.
So, back to the news. In a BBC story, the head of Bolivia’s prison system cites corruption and the abuse of children – as well as overcrowding – as reasons for shuttering San Pedro. The prisoners themselves are protesting the planned closure, so any claims that this is better for them should be taken with that grain of salt. Admittedly, I’ve been away from San Pedro and regular work in prisons for several years. But I’ve stayed in touch with friends who know the system, and I have colleagues, including some of the volunteers I oversee, who continue to work in prisons here in Cochabamba. So, here are my initial thoughts upon reading the news of the planned closure:
- I haven’t heard good things about the current director of the prison system, Ramiro Llanos. While he claims to seek the social reinsertion of inmates as a priority, it is telling that whenever I’ve talked recently with Church people doing the work of rehabilitation and accompanying inmates in their reintegration into society, they’ve complained about him, saying he is very rigid, unsupportive, and concerned with “security” above all else. A friend in the government who knows the prison system well has told me the same.
- Governments have been threatening to close San Pedro for years, both because it’s an embarrassment to them to have government corruption, mismanagement, and injustice on display in such a visible way, and because the prison sits on prime real estate on a central and otherwise-attractive plaza.
- Authorities claim corruption and the abuse of children as reasons for the closure. Both are real problems, but A) they don’t seem to be addressing the general corruption of the police who oversee the prisons – they’re pretending the problem has something to do with San Pedro specifically, when the problem is actually just more prominently on display there; and B) while it does sound like there was one tragic and sensational case recently of a child allegedly being raped in the prison, this also comes at a time when the UN and others are criticizing the presence of children in Bolivia's prisons in general; it's a very complex issue and usually the critiques fail to take into account things like the humanizing effect of inmates being with family, or the lack of positive alternatives available for these kids.
- Authorities are also citing overcrowding, but they don't seem to be doing anything about the real cause of that, which is the "retardation of justice" - the fact that most of Bolivia's inmate population has not been tried, and people spend years in prison awaiting sentences.
- There seems to be a focus on "security" which both ignores the corruption issues (as mentioned above) and risks losing all that is unique and very positive about Bolivia's prison system. I fear a continued move toward a more U.S.-style penal system.
- I don't know much about some of the smaller jails they are planning to move guys to in La Paz. A couple are new. I hope they're decent facilities, but my fear is that they'll be less humane and simply receive less attention as a kind of tiny urban gulag archipelago than they do currently with everyone packed into one big, famous prison. Also, a lot of San Pedro’s inmates will apparently be moved to Chonchocoro, a maximum security prison about an hour outside the city in the altiplano, and I think that’s a bad move, a) because Chonchocoro is a very harsh place to be both in terms of climate/altitude (it’s close to 14,000 feet above sea level and bitter cold), and because of isolation and distance from families, and friends; and b) because the one nice thing about Chonchocoro has always been that it's one of the very few Bolivian prisons (if not the only one) with good infrastructure, healthy meals, and no overcrowding, and now I fear it will start to be overcrowded and conditions there will decline.
- This is just the latest in a series of government policy decisions that risk hurting the people rather than deal with the (admittedly gargantuan) twin problems of corruption and ineptitude in the police force and other related government agencies (such as Customs).From the BBC article linked above:
“We have had enough of abuses being committed inside the jail,” [prisons director Llanos] told the BBC.“We cannot control the police [emphasis mine]. They have orders to stop drugs and alcohol from entering the prison, but to no avail.So we will close down the prison altogether.”
I don't envy anyone the job of fixing these institutions, but it has to be done, and so far many of this government's fixes are short-sighted at best. In a strange way, the police and military have a kind of invisible stranglehold on what is, on the surface, a democratic government in Bolivia. The government needs them, and – especially given Bolivia’s history of coups d’état and military dictatorships – fears alienating them. But they are, indeed, rife with corruption and hobbled by ineptitude, and it’s hard to imagine an effective clean-up that doesn’t essentially involve disassembling them completely and building them back up from zero. The political will to undertake such a radical reform simply doesn’t exist. And so, the government continues to address symptoms rather than root causes. Unable to stem the flow of contraband gasoline into neighboring Peru and Brazil, they cut government fuel subsidies, only to reverse course after massive public protests (see here, here, here, and here!). Unable to stop incoming contraband and tax evasion on imports, they’ve responded by multiplying the bureaucracy of the nation’s Customs service, creating more opportunities for corruption and poor service, and placing an albatross around the neck of small businesses with any international components. And now, unable to stop drug-running, bribery, and other abuses in the nation’s prisons, they will close San Pedro.
To be fair, the government is not monolithic, and I think professed intentions to end corruption are often sincere. But they will never actually be effective if they can’t tackle the problems in the nation’s police force and related institutions. The prison system is administered by a civilian agency headed by Mr. Llanos, but the day-to-day running of the prisons depends on the police. It must be frustrating for Mr. Llanos, as it has been for his predecessors, to experience such impotence in the face of police malfeasance. But I don’t think simply closing one prison and moving inmates to others is the solution Mr. Llanos pretends it is.
On a related note, report after report confirm that the worst violence in Bolivia is violence against women and children. In homes and streets and chicherías all over Bolivia, men victimize women and kids with impunity. Beatings, rape, and even femicide are horrifyingly common, and too seldom prosecuted. Of course, prison authorities and inmate representatives alike have a responsibility to prevent such violence within the country's jails. But I fear one controversial case in one prison is being used to distract from the broader issue. Closing San Pedro does little if anything to make women and children safer.