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Do not pass go...

BOLIVIA | Tuesday, 4 November 2008 | Views [2467]

After soaking up the sun in Coroico, we went back to La Paz. We stayed in a different and more central hotel (Hotel Feuntes). La Paz was very laid back. We spent the days just walking around and window shopping (Dave loved that). There was some kind of parade on and we watched the dancing and silly masks for a while. We went to the Coca museum which gave a history of coca use and production. But the most interesting thing we did was visit San Pedro Prison.

Yes, we went inside a Bolivian prison, but this is no ordinary prison. To really understand it you have to read a book called *Marching Powder* by Rusty Young. It's about an English man who was sent to San Pedro for drugs trafficking. The reason why San Pedro is different is that the prison functions like a little town. Prisoners have to pay for their own cells, buy their own food, drink and medicines, they have the keys to their cells/apartments and the police have little influence on what goes on inside. The richer the prisoner, the easier his life inside. Most have their own TVs and kitchen areas and some even have en-suites. Luckiy in-mates are able to continue their trade inside, for exmple doctors, barbers and restauranteurs. At the other extreme are those who can't afford $200 (American) to buy their own cells and have no money for food. These people are forced to sleep in the open court yards and eat the prison food (a soup which does not contain enough nutrients or calories to live on).

So, we were met at the prison gate by our guide (a prisoner) and some bodyguards (also prisoners). He showed us around the different sections of the prison. The prison is sectioned into areas according to the quality and price of the rooms. The poorer sections have very small rooms. We were taken into one of these rooms by our guide and met the prisoner who lived there. He was very young, standing making bracelets to sell to tourists. After we left his cell our guide told us that the young guy was a murderer. That he had killed someone because he "loves the blood". You have to wonder whether everything the guide tells you is the truth. Everyone is high on drugs of some sort.

Bolviva is said to be the best country to buy cocaine and San Pedro prison produces the best cocaine in Bolivia. This is another trade which can be continued on the inside, cocaine production. At night cells are turned into factories. Why don't the police do something about it? For the same reason as we were allowed in, money. We payed 300 Bolivianos each to visit the prison, a massive amount of money in Bolivia. Most of that money finds it's way into the pockets of the police. Many of the poorer addicts are addicted to base. A chemical used in cocaine production. It's cheap and highly addictive. For the others cocaine is easier to get hold of and cheaper than cigarettes and beer. Plus it's familiar. 80% of inmates are in for drug offences.

We continued our tour looking at the different cells, the pool room, the laundry, the different sections and finished in the section that our guide lived in. He pointed out the punishment unit, the area where drugs our produced and the route across the roof that many prisoners use to send things back and forth. Our guide asked us if we wanted any cocaine. We politely declined. It's supposed to be one of the safest places for tourists to do drugs because the police don't go inside the prison often.

Our guide couldn't show us his own cell because his children were sleeping. That's another strange thing about San Pedro, often the prisoner's families move into the prison with them. Although the women and children are free to move back and forth between the prison and the real world, they live with their husbands in their cells. This makes economic sense. The men cannot afford to support their families from prison, it would mean maintaining two houses. It is simpler for the families to move in. From our visit it seemed that even while in prison with their husbands women were still doing most of the work. It was women who were 'manning' the shops and food stalls, looking after the children and no doubt keeping the cells tidy too. To get a better sense of the weird goings on, you really have to read the book. Anyway it was a bizarre day out.

Tags: la paz, san pedro prison

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