Mental Health

Bizarre Bolivian Prison Has Marketplace, Hotel Inside

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The following is a guest post by Allison Gamble.  You can more of Allison's posts at forensicpsychology.net.

If you were to set foot inside the walls of San Pedro prison, you’d see that it’s unlike any other correctional facility in the world. It’s the largest prison in La Paz, Bolivia and well-known for its micro-society that dwells within its walls. The prison is divided into eight sectors, with some rooms being large and comfortable, while others are small and cramped. Approximately 1,500 inmates reside within San Pedro prison and the majority of them are jailed for drug-related charges.

Upon arriving at the facility, San Pedro appears to be like any other correctional facility, with plenty of guards, thick walls and security gates. Yet on the inside, San Pedro looks more like a poor neighborhood in Bolivia than a prison; the streets are lined with children, marketplaces, restaurants and even a hotel.

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This unusual setting has received much attention on a global level, particularly from those in the field of forensic psychology, as opponents have challenged how felons, many of whom are awaiting trial, can coexist within these prison walls without much intervention from police. In fact, inside the facility there are no guards, uniforms or metal bars on the jail cells. Instead, the inmates govern the facility. It would seem as if San Pedro were a correctional facility that granted freedom.

Earning a Living

Although San Pedro offers a great deal of freedom for its inmates, this freedom comes at a price. The micro-society that exists within these prison walls operates just like any society would. Inmates must pay for their prison cells, which means the luxurious ones can only be obtained only by those who make enough money. To acquire an income, inmates work inside of the facility carrying out such tasks as selling groceries, being a hairdresser or repairing TVs and radios.

Those inmates who are fortunate enough to make decent a living within the facility have the ability to purchase the higher-end cells, which are large and contain private bathrooms and cable TV. These inmates also have access to a lively outside area, with pool tables, food stalls and kiosks that sell fresh juice. For the rest of the inmates, the prison cells rival what a cell would look like in any other prison, but worse. They’re small, cramped and several inmates have to share the space. However, it’s not just organized work that allows prison inmates to make their own money. With access to cocaine base, inmates are able to sell the cocaine and make a substantial amount of money. Indeed, the drugs are sold within the facility, but the biggest source of revenue comes from tourists who enter the prison to purchase cocaine.

Family Life

It’s not just the way this micro-society lives and works that makes them the center of attention. ABC.net.au reports that prison inmates also have the freedom to let their families live with them. Children are found playing in the streets, attending schools both inside and outside of the facility and are cared for by the nursery staff.  Although the advantages of providing a family-like environment may seem to offer security to young children, this is far from the truth.

Children often live with their fathers in San Pedro because their mothers have been sent to a different prison facility or have abandoned them. According to BBC News , the children often suffer sexual abuse and violence, causing them to fear for their safety. If the children are able to attend school outside of San Pedro, they become the source of discrimination. This less-than-ideal scenario is seen far too often, but some fathers do try to provide a stable life for their children within this micro-society.

Opposing Views

The bizarre structure of San Pedro prison has made it a frequent source of discussion. On one hand, the freedom the inmates have to run their own society makes the prison one of the safest in Bolivia. It allows the inmates to live a structured life, working, making a living and obeying certain laws. The inmates not only make their own rules, but they elect a leader and financial secretary.

Still, the prison is dangerous, with a high rate of violence and no intervention from police. Approximately four deaths a month occur due to to natural causes or accidents. Fortunately, the streets are relatively safe during the day as children play, but become more dangerous at night. Drugs are also readily accepted and done outwardly on the prison streets.

The Changing Face of San Pedro

In an effort to reduce corruption, the prison is being heavily monitored and has disallowed any of the tours which acted as a major source of revenue.  As a result, inmates at the prison fear that this will cause their lives to change for the worse. With no more tours coming in, there will be fewer ways to make money and fewer opportunities to develop relationships.  As such, inmates are worried the conditions will deteriorate and mimic a standard Bolivian jail. These fears are what make San Pedro so compelling since the inmates actually enjoy living there. In fact, inmates are often so comfortable at San Pedro, they don’t mind awaiting trial. They’ve learned to live according to a new set of laws and appreciate the mini-society that allows them to live, work and raise a family. Returning to the streets of Bolivia no longer seems a viable option.

A recent article from Guardian.co.uk discusses the inmates’ concerns over the changing dynamics of San Pedro prison. This has raised awareness that inmates hardly view the prison as such and instead consider San Pedro to be an acceptable society. Authorities worry that with this approach; inmates will struggle to integrate into Bolivian society again. The social order that takes place at San Pedro is compelling. Inmates are left to fend for themselves, while learning to adapt to a new society. Even with the violence, crime and drug use, San Pedro is home to many families and offers a safer and more tolerable living arrangement than the streets of Bolivia. This unique set-up may actually decrease psychological damage in the long run for these inmates and their families.