Photo of the Day

The punishment pool in San Pedro Prison. Inmates’ children are pictured surrounding a pool inside San Pedro prison, the biggest in Bolivia’s main city, La Paz. The children play in the pool during the day, and at night it is used to drown inmates who do not respect the inmates who run the prison.

The City Within a City

Inside the prison where guards are too scared to enter

Located only meters away from the tranquil Plaza San Pedro, lies one of the word?s most notorious and corrupt institutions, San Pedro Prison. San Pedro Prison is one of the biggest in Bolivia and the common destination for people convicted of breaking the countries drug laws. It is found in the heart of the country’s administrative capital, La Paz.

Imagine a tough and dangerous men?s prison full of violence, drugs and corruption that is also home to families of women and children. A place where cells, some with cable television, kitchens and private bathrooms, are bought and sold, complete with title deeds, and the real estate market has bubbles, just like on the outside. A place where backpackers pay to go on tours, guided by inmates. A place where the police rarely venture, except to collect bribes. A place with its own strict set of rules and regulations, where prisoners elect their own leaders, who enforce the law in the only way they know how, violently. A society that lives and dies by the cocaine economy. A vibrant collection of small businesses flourishes ? photographic studios, restaurants, messenger services, market stalls, copying shops, shoeshine boys, and grocery stores.

Originally built to accommodate 600 prisoners, San Pedro holds over 3000 inmates and their families at any one time.?Entire families live in San Pedro men’s prison, as it’s often cheaper and safer on the inside.

In Bolivia, breaking out of prison is hard. Sneaking in is pretty easy, especially if it?s San Pedro Prison, the most bizarre correctional facility in the world.?In this gaspingly high prison, outside Bolivia?s capital La Paz and 11,500 feet up in the Andes, the?male prisoners work as pastors, food vendors, tour guides, prostitutes, barbers, carpenters, shoe-shiners and cocaine manufacturers. One even ran for vice-president of Bolivia from inside the prison?s walls. The 20?or so guards monitor the inmates from outside the prison; their only job is to see that no one escapes. Inside, however, the prisoners run the joint.

Everywhere, there is a buzz of prisoner activity, because inside San Pedro inmates move freely during the day. Perpetrators of violent and nonviolent crimes, people with sentences and those awaiting trial, mix as they work. Men in ragged clothes cluster near the barred entrance, trying to sell key chains they have made, and others in clean, pressed polo shirts stand in kiosks serving food. Prisoner-elected security guards (police rarely venture beyond the prison walls) patrol tiny plazas, and men known as taxis earn a few cents from visitors by locating inmates. Those with money can expect better security and nicer lodgings, while the poorest sleep in stairwells.

San Pedro inmates live within the five, four and three star accommodation sections, or ?on the streets?, and must rent or purchase their own cells for up to $1100 each, in addition to a one-off ?entry? cost of about $270.

For prisoners in one of the poorest countries in South America, these are often unachievable savings.?To pay for their safety, prisoners carry out work as kitchen hands, cooks, cleaners, carpenters, painters and convenience store owners. ?Street? vendors even sell homemade foods.

The government only funds basic food for the inmates at San Pedro; beyond that, the inmates have to earn money to survive. Because family members often can?t afford to live elsewhere, many actually live with their inmates in the prison.?In these situations, everyone works together for income and the prison?s economy actually functions well as something of a black market.?The sale?of drugs to visiting tourists is a common practice, and it gives those inside a significant income and an unusual amount of freedom within the prison walls.

San Pedro is kind of like a different country with its own rules, traditions and laws. Each division of the prison is run like a separate government, with elected leaders charging taxes and providing for the greater population.

FAMILY TIME: Hundreds of women and children live with the convict husbands in cells


This is San Pedro prison is a strange microcosm of Bolivia itself, fuelled ? like the society at large ? by drugs, corruption, and a strong sense of family honour. 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.

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

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.

Outside, they have billiard tables, 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.

New arrivals who had no room or money became the servant of someone in exchange for a floor to sleep.?Food was free but the moneyed prisoners never ate it because it was drugged (with sedatives to keep them calm.?No guards ever dare to enter, they only patrol the streets and the walls outside.

The?cells ? more like a row of hostel rooms around a series of balconies ? decked out in whatever they could afford, TVs, waterbeds, computers, all paid off / thru the system. The richest guy in the prison was a mafia boss busted with 4 tons of coke, he lives on the top floor.

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

San Pedro is unique in that it is not the prison guards who are in charge there but the prisoners themselves. As S later said, “This door,” pointing at his cell door, “is not to keep me in, but to keep the guards out.” Like every other prisoner, he held his own key.

Prison guards had, once, allowed tourists to wander around quite freely with prisoner guides (for a bribe, of course). After the publication of a book about the place, however, the government had cracked down (in the soft way that only the Bolivian government can) by putting up a sign proclaiming, “No Turistas.”

Laundry hangs from every rail across the prison’s courtyard where children are pictured playing away from their parents.

Every weekday morning, the large door separating the prisoners of San Pedro from the populace of La Paz opens, letting out a trickle of humanity: mostly women carrying babies cocooned in colourful fabric slings and backpack-wearing children in school uniforms. These are the unofficial inmates of San Pedro, who live with their jailed husbands and fathers because it is more economical ? and according to interviews, perhaps safer ? behind bars than outside in the world.

Bolivian law allows the children to live with their mothers, but only in women?s prisons and only till the age of 6. Once they are older, the law says, the children must go live with extended family or, if that is not an option, into group homes with orphans and other children whose families cannot care for them. But in reality, hundreds of kids, many of them well beyond age 6, live in low- and medium-security men?s prisons.

Inmates’ children and partners are believed to be safer inside the prison than on the impoverished streets. Rows of laundry hang across the brightly-coloured courtyard as children play with toy trucks below and murders, robbers and rapists lurk nearby.
But they often fall victim inside too.

These offences do not go unpunished, with rapists and child molesters treated with a brutal zero-tolerance policy by the inmates ‘council’. Being stabbed is one of the most common punishments.

From the outside, San Pedro looks like any other jail but the inside is like no other prison on earth.

There are no guards or metal bars on the cell windows and inmates have to pay for their own cells by working inside the jail.?Available jobs include carpentry, laundry services and even shoe-shining.

The prison is divided up into districts ? similar to any urban area in the outside world.

What makes San Pedro so interesting are the conditions in which Bolivia?s most hardened criminals live. A society within itself, the prison contains shops and restaurants run by inmates, women and children living voluntarily with imprisoned family members and ironically, some of the country?s busiest cocaine laboratories.

Many inmates are seriously addicted to smoking cocaine base, which is made from cocaine paste and has an effect similar to crack cocaine. A German inmate demonstrates for the camera how the paste is simply made. San Pedro is full of laboratories making the stuff, which then gets sold on the outside. ?Most of the contraband comes through the gates and the guards get their cut. A lot of the officials who come to San Pedro actually pay for their posting, because they know they?re going to make a lot of money there,? says Young.

There?s the soccer coach, one of the most important people in San Pedro. Teams play on a concrete field, but nonetheless, competition is fierce. The inmates are sponsored by Coca-Cola in return for its products being sold exclusively in the prison.

And then, perhaps most surprisingly of all, there are the children. Dozens of them live in San Pedro, condemned to a life behind bars because of crimes committed by their fathers. Their mothers live in the jail as well, since they can?t afford to live outside without their husbands. The children leave the prison to go to school each day, and the inmates do their best to protect the kids from witnessing the inevitable violence, but it?s a far from ideal environment.

In many ways it?s far better for them to be inside the prison rather than living in a dangerous situation outside. At least this way the parents live with their kids, and the family stays together. Outside, they?d have nowhere to live.

The women and children also have a stabilising and humanising influence upon the prisoners. ?It?s a far happier place for their presence. It makes it more like a normal community, and keeps the tension levels down. Your family bonds are not broken, from the very first day, they can see you, they can visit you.

For families who are able to raise several hundred dollars for the initial purchase of a room, living inside San Pedro can indeed offer economic advantages: A prisoner receives one meal a day, children under 6 receive two, and electricity and water are paid for by the prison.

Bolivia is different because children live in men?s prisons, and families mix with the general prison population while the police seem to turn a blind eye. In addition, the country has a very high rate of pretrial detention ? more than 80 percent of the country?s prison population is awaiting or in the middle of a trial ? and incarceration for small-scale drug smuggling. This, combined with a painfully slow judicial process and a growing but fragile safety net for the poor, makes the question of what to do with the children of incarcerated parents especially urgent.

The inmates locked up in San Pedro are forced to earn a living to to pay for their prison cells. Pictured is a man with a bucket inside a washroom inside the jail.

The lack of guards inside the jail and the fact inmates have to pay for their own cells means San Pedro is a cheap model for a government in one of the poorest nations in South America.

It is not a normal prison by any stretch of the imagination. For starters prisoners must buy their cells when they enter the prison, that?s after they?ve paid the entrance fee! There are many different sections ranging from terrible conditions in the poorer parts where inmates are crammed in 3 or 4 to a tiny cell to parts which are more like posh apartment blocks and house convicted businessmen and politicians. The wives and children of many of the inmates actually live with their husbands inside the prison. Every inmate must earn their living as nothing comes for free so many run shops, restaurants, and most famously cocaine laboratories. Unlike most prisons, guards rarely enter the main part of San Pedro, so prisoners are for the most part left to look after themselves.

Proving that not even inmates can escape commercialism, cash-strapped San Pedro Prison was once able to procure extra cash by working with Coca-Cola. The soft drink company supplied the prison with tables, chairs and umbrellas in return for the exclusive right to advertise and sell its product line within the prison.

Where it is said the most money is made is in the production of illicit drugs ? specifically cocaine.?The majority of inmates in San Pedro have been imprisoned for their roles in the manufacturing and distribution of cocaine.

With no law enforcement patrolling the interior and guards accepting bribes to access supplies, knowledge of producing and distributing cocaine can lead to an attractive, high source of income.?Inside the facility, some prisoners confirm cocaine is produced by inmates and smuggled out by visitors and their family members.

Despite this, mothers and children regard their living situation as relatively safe.

When touring the facility, prisoners openly discuss the zero tolerance attitude toward violence or mistreatment of women and children.

However, a lack of official enforcement and monitoring makes safety impossible to ensure.

There?s a drug rehabilitation facility and chapels in each section.?Inmates openly declare themselves as ongoing drug users and to avoid temptations and quit, prisoners spend their days inside the restricted quarters of the rehabilitation area.?Other prisoners use faith to help them serve their time behind bars, attending services, joining groups and becoming involved within a variety of religious programs.

TOURS: Tourists from around the world have paid to go on tours around the Bolivian prison

San Pedro operates its own economy, with inmates required?to pay for their own?food, housing, medical care and general upkeep. A few prisoners are supported by family members, however many are left to find jobs within the prison in order to survive. Career prospects include, but are not limited to, restaurant owner, bar tender, messenger, chef, medical adviser, hairdresser and of course drug dealer.

Another lucrative income source is the alcohol trade. Money is also made and lost through gambling. Up to US$20,000 in bets are placed per year on inter-section football matches.

Life inside San Pedro is notably autonomous. Each sector in the prison annually elects a leader and a financial secretary who not only establish the rules and laws within the prison, but determine how law-breaking inmates should be punished. Rapists and child abusers are often murdered by fellow inmates, and those who survive often find themselves with hospital bills to pay.

There are no guards inside San Pedro, and authorities usually don?t intervene unless a significant problem arises or for the twice-daily roll-call.

Unsurprisingly, the few guards that do oversee San Pedro Prison, (there are about 20) are known to be corrupt, accepting bribes off prisoners looking to pay off or reduce their sentences.

Unlike most countries around the world, inmates have the right to vote in the Bolivian national elections. It?s not uncommon for political candidates to enter the prison with the intention of increasing their support from the prison?s community.

Around 80% of the inmates are being held in relation to drug crimes. An astounding 75% of all prisoners have never actually been convicted of their alleged crimes ? they?re being held pending trial.

There are on average four deaths every month inside the prison from natural causes or from violent attacks.

San Pedro prison, welcomes backpackers from across the globe to sniff cocaine, take a paid tour and meet some of the country?s most menacing prisoners.?Everything is?available, and apart from food and the standard commodities, there was booze, cocaine, grass, women ? wives, pros, girlfriends were able to enter and stay overnight, for a price. (The 1 hour day tour cost $US25; the overnight, your-own-cell, sex & substance inclusive package started at $100.

Even though tourists are welcome, paedos and pervs are not.

Prisoners have a strict zero-tolerance policy against any sex offenders because women and children live inside the jail.

When a rapist arrived into the system… Rapists incarcerated there have been dragged to the prison swimming pool by other lags…??then put in the concrete pool in the courtyard where for some time he would be abused, have food, poo, urine?thrown over him, then beaten across the bare bottom, 20 ? 30 times with thick, plastic-coated lead cables torn from the prison walls ? apparently, most victims screamed for mercy after 3 lashes, and following the lashings super-hot red chillies were then crushed and stuffed on and up his bleeding bum,?hit with planks of wood with nails ? and finally drowned.

DRUGS: Cocaine is produced and visible throughout the prison

Thousands of backpackers have entered the prison since the tours first started, intrigued by what is unquestionably one of the oddest tourist attractions in the world. Even Lonely Planet at one point included San Pedro in its South America guides. Many visitors are shocked and fascinated in equal measure by the tour which normally includes visits to the different sections, the cell of the guide and the infamous swimming pool where many inmates have been murdered. Another draw for some travellers is the opportunity to take cocaine which is ridiculously cheap and perhaps what the prison is most famous for. Many inmates are coke addicts and given that is produced onsite, the cocaine in San Pedro is amongst the purest in the world. In the 1990?s many visitors would stay overnight in the prison which hosts some pretty wild parties!

Since as early as the 1990s, tourists were able to pay their way into San Pedro?Prison. Prison tours, though technically illegal, were a popular activity among backpackers in La Paz, with up to 50 tours occurring daily. Prison guards accepted bribes as high as 400 Bs ($57 US), marking tourists? arms with a number upon entry so they could be identified and released at the culmination of the tour.

It must be like visiting a human zoo, feeding the perversity of tourists and devalues the role of the prison by turning it into a circus.

A typical San Pedro prison tour consisted of a guide (usually a member of the strongest gang at the time) and a bodyguard taking tourists to the different cell blocks, inside cells, to the caf?s, bars and artisans? stalls for those much sought-after souvenirs and finally to a quiet corner where they could try cocaine if they so desired.

It is rare for visitors to be allowed to stay overnight when the prison is more dangerous but some backpackers have in the past chosen to do this.

There are conflicting reports about the current situation with the tours. Backpackers in San Pedro Prison are certainly a less common sight than 10 years ago but like many things in Bolivia, if you?ve got money you can make things happen. Authorities don?t like to admit that the tours ever take place (they definitely do) so any sort of publicity tends to make it harder to visit.

Like anything though, if you?ve got the money you can make things happen, and even today, there are rumours of tourists still making their way inside the prison walls.

The bread and butter for many of San Pedro?s inmates is the production and sale of cocaine. Some of the purest cocaine in the world comes from inside the prisons walls, with inmates producing the drug not only to support their own habit, but to sell on the outside as a means to make money.

Poorer inmates who can?t afford the luxury of powdered cocaine, often resort to smoking ?base?, the residue left over from the manufacture of cocaine. Base is highly addictive and is packed with toxic chemicals cooked out of powdered and rock cocaine.

Photo Credit: Brennan Paezold

One of the most heart-breaking scenes within San Pedro is that of the children and wives who, faced with no way to support their families on the outside, are forced to live day by day alongside their incarcerated spouses. About 200 children live here with their fathers. The younger ones go to one of the two nurseries inside the jail, while the older ones go to schools outside. Outside they suffer discrimination – inside they are afraid of violence and sexual abuse. Their mothers are often in other jails or have abandoned them.

Families are permitted to live inside the prison and are free to come and go as they please. Women provide an important link to the outside world,?purchasing and selling items at La Paz?s market stalls to support their husbands. The 200 children who live inside the prison are either educated in the prison?s two nurseries or in the nearby schools and spend their free time playing inside the prison grounds. Sadly some of these children also fall victim to violence and abuse.

The education of kids in San Pedro is taken seriously.

Those living inside are schooled at the nearest facility within a few hundred metres of the jail, and are walked to and from school each day by prison guards.

Many Bolivians are unhappy children are being brought up alongside criminals and argue that a youth spent behind bars does not provide kids with normal social skills or an appropriate environment to learn.

Inmates speak of the children being ridiculed and often becoming bullies at their school.

Soon, wives and children won?t live with their convicted husbands.

In 2013 a 12-year old girl living in San Pedro reported her pregnancy to the authorities: a result of rape spanning four years by her father, uncle, and godfather according to Prison Director, Ramiro Llanos. Bolivians were outraged and pressured the government to reform the country?s prison system. That summer, authorities announced the closure of San Pedro in response to the national anger and citizen protests. But San Pedro?s prisoners protested the decision and denied the allegations of rape.

Today, San Pedro is still open because, there?s nowhere to immediately relocate the prisoners and these projects tend to take a long time.? Its continued existence still sparks national debates on corruption, a broken correctional system and tourism in Bolivia.

The fallout was bad for Bolivia and the government announced the facility?s imminent closure. A new jail would be built outside the city and prisoners would be relocated.

Following the controversy over the 2013 attack, the government announced the building will be acquired by the Ministry of Economy and Public Finance of Bolivia. The Government promised to shut down San Pedro to stop the high life of “cocaine trafficking and other abuses” by the prisoners.

Over the past few years, governmental and nongovernmental organizations working together secured the removal of hundreds of children over 11 years old from prisons across the country, the majority of whom now live with extended family. But without regular and long-term check-ins ? the responsibility of overburdened local social-service agencies ? it is difficult to know whether the lives of the kids are better on the outside, or worse.

San Pedro is a model of brutal self-governance, one that exists throughout Latin America?s prison systems. However, Adriana, a 27-year old La Paz native who volunteered in San Pedro Prison in 2001 said that San Pedro does not fulfill the fundamental purpose of prisons. The prisoners ?can choose what they eat, dress or do, as long as they don?t get out. This might have been a positive feature if it wasn?t for the influence of corrupt policemen, the failures in the judicial system and the absence of control over what comes in and out of the prison.?

One Bolivian journalist, Lauren Leticia Rivero Aracena, added ?that control of the prisons by prisoners in collaboration with police and authorities are responsible for the prison administration permitting alcohol, drugs, knives and fire weapons, women and parties, and a vast range of criminal network organizations that are managed from the inside of jail, where an alarming 80 percent of inmates have no final judgment.? She added that Bolivian ?prisons are a true reflection of society? and ?San Pedro does not fulfill its social function to re-incorporate the individuals back into society.?

The way San Pedro Prison functions is a necessity as a result, Bolivian journalist Aldo Medinaceli said. However, he believes the ?real necessity is to change this way of living.? In the meantime, their self-rule is ?similar to the old favelas in Brazil? with plenty of unwritten rules replaced with a complex set of ?urban codes? to help organize people who want to ?live well, be happy, learn, or go free, as we are outside the walls.?

Just because the prisoners have an unparalleled degree of freedom and control over their lives does not mean the inmates aren?t trying to escape. The guards who monitor the inmates from the outside to prevent escapees; it is their only job. Still, four prisoners escaped in September 2014, using blankets and sheets to scale the prison walls. The irony is not lost as rumours say the guards left their post because of cold weather. This all occurred after the first day of an annual weeklong celebration called ?la semana de las personas privadas de libertad? (?Week of Detainees?). Interpol and national authorities are still searching for three of escapees.

Plans are currently in motion to close down the prison for good, with drug production and child abuses being cited as factors in the closure.

Director of Internal Affairs, Ramiro Llanos, presented a resolution on the morning of Thursday 18th July 2013 authorizing closure of the facility. It was originally planned that the prison would stop receiving new prisoners the same day, but this was postponed until 1st August 2013 to allow time for alternative facilities to be prepared.

The prison population of around 3000, they are actually sure how inmates are in there, (San Pedro was only built to accommodate 600) will be relocated over the next couple of years, or released upon completion of their sentence. Prisoners with existing sentences are being relocated to Choncocoro prison, while prisoners awaiting sentencing are being sent to Patacamaya and youths are being sent to Qalahumana.

The future of the state-owned San Pedro prison site is under debate. In early 2013, Government minister Carlos Romero announced that it would be sold to the Ministry of Economy and Finances for the construction of a public administration building. However, the Mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla has asked that the site be handed over to the city of La Paz, pointing to a law passed in the 1990?s which earmarks the site for either an extension of Plaza Sucre, or a new cultural center.

News of the closure was met with protests by San Pedro?s inmates.

The government would need to build a new prison and move all the prisoners. And they would absolutely revolt because they are in a really good position as tourists visit and they make money from them. People will do anything to survive because the state has just thrown them inside and left them to their own devices.

A kitchen in the Palmar section of Bolivia’s San Pedro prison. Photo by Niels Van Iperen

Do the San Pedro Prison Tours

Do you want to visit?

Your best bet is to talk to fellow travellers in?South America?and especially La Paz and try to go as a large group if you are in any way concerned about the safety of it. Head to the San Pedro Plaza and hang around for a bit. You may well be approached about tours but be wary of conmen. If that fails head to the main gate of the prison where there is a steady flow of comings and goings and see what you can do. Tours are likely to cost in the region of $25 (which includes a bribe to the guards to get you in).

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