Some may call it a city within a city, where drugs and other sellable items are passed through tiny bars from the outside world, where there are businesses, children and a unique democratic system. Passing this prison, it seems secure, normal even, like any other prison in any other country. La Paz’s Plaza de San Pedro looks like any other city plaza in South America. A large church looms over the tree-lined courtyard, there are a few shops and restaurants, and shoe-shine boys hang around for customers as the traffic bustles by. Yet this was one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the world.

The eastern side of the plaza is dominated by a walled compound that runs the length of the square. In the centre is a large gate, with armed guards and a police van perpetually parked outside. A steady flow of women carrying bundles and children with schoolbags pass through the gates. They are entering the infamous San Pedro prison, where, if you knew the right (or wrong) people, you used to be able to take a guided tour.

In the centre of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, 4000m up in the Andes, more than 2,400 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 50 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.

Here, prison cells are replaced with a bustling housing and rental market with “homes” that range in quality from 12 by 12-foot cement shacks with dismal facilities to large, luxurious apartments with Internet and hot tubs.

Scene inside of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia
Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, if an inmate cannot find a job, he should expect to sleep outside with other homeless inmates. Some of the prisoners who do make ends meet also invite their wives and children to live with them as they otherwise have no way to support themselves. If a prisoner does have disposable income, he might just purchase what is rumoured to be the purest cocaine in Bolivia, produced directly by inmates inside the prison.

The prisoners organize themselves through democratically elected representatives of the eight separate prison sections.

Cells are not free. If an inmate cannot afford a cell, it’s life “on the streets” inside, which is far more dangerous than life on the streets outside. Inmates who can afford a cell live with their wives and children, but that creates obvious problems.

If a prisoner does have disposable income, he might just purchase what is rumoured to be the purest cocaine in Bolivia, produced directly by inmates inside the prison.

In 2013, it was alleged a 12-year-old girl fell pregnant after being raped by her father and several other men. 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.

Almost three years later, San Pedro prison remains open.

Originally built to accommodate 600 prisoners, San Pedro holds over 2000 inmates and their families at any one time. 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 Bolivianos each, in addition to a one-off “entry” cost of about 270 Bolivianos. 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. “Street” vendors even sell homemade foods. Yet, most of the money 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, particularly compared to the extremely dangerous and dirt-filled orphanage in La Paz.

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. Made infamous by the release of the book Marching Powder in 2003, the prison began to attract more attention and foot traffic from curious tourists seeking a closer look. Scribed by Australian Rusty Young, who bribed his way into voluntarily living inside the facility for three months, the book details the experiences of imprisoned English drug trafficker, Thomas McFadden.

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.

As a foreign, English-speaking prisoner, McFadden faced terrifying grief. However, his situation also led him to his own revenue stream. He became a tour guide at the facility, accommodating curious internationals.

Like many other Bolivian buildings, San Pedro prison is in a run-down state, however inmates still take pride in the presentation of their homes and living quarters. Prisoners have access to all offerings in their own section, as well as the opportunity to use communal services and businesses in common areas of the jail, such as food stalls, restaurants, convenience stores, massage therapists and an on-site brothel, run by visiting prostitutes who are believed to pay guards a fee to enter.

Despite many illegitimate practices taking place inside, prisoners also run good-hearted health and spiritual programs for those in want or need. There’s a drug rehabilitation facility and chapels in each section.

In Marching Powder, Young describes a scene where accused child rapists are murdered in a frenzy. Their bodies are dumped in a concrete hole known as the “swimming pool”. Violence exists, but nobody sees it, not even the guards.

Despite the lack of guards and the miss fall in discipline or some form of a system, the one thing that is taken seriously here is education. 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.

Children playing in La Paz, Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, 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. A new prison will be built outside the city and all prisoners will be transferred. The new facility will bring an end to La Paz’s infamous San Pedro prison. Illegal tours have ended and for the time being the jail continues to operate, but the doors have closed to the public forever.

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