A Travellerspoint blog

San pedro prison

-the shortest sentence in history

rain 11 °C

No matter where you are in this wonderful world of ours there is one common dominator. Money Talks…it speaks all languages, in this case fluent Spanish. Being in La Paz it shines out even more so, because it’s such a poor area of the world money can really mean the difference between eating and not. Being able to buy yourself in or out of any situation has never been so apparent than the day we decided to get ourselves into San Pedro prison.

A quick rundown for you guys who have never read the famous travellers book Marching Powder or who is unfamiliar with San Pedro Prison.
- It’s a prison that is 100% run by prisoners
- It has a president and 7 delegates who are in charge of their areas (all of whom are long term prisoners)
- If you want a cell when u arrive for your sentence you need to pay for it.
- If you don’t have money then you have to rent one. If you don’t have enough for rent you have to work at the prison and if you can’t get work in the prison then you sleep outside.
- Prison cells range from $150-$2000US per cell, depending on what area of the prison and what the cell includes….pay tv, good beds, size of room etc,…
- Cell mates run restaurants, gyms and conduct tours to earn money but there biggest trade is cocaine (supposedly the purest cocaine in the world is made inside the prison walls)
- Delegates are in charge of penalties for misbehaving prisoners. Which they have a system for of 3 strikes and you are out. Being removed from this prison means you go to a much tougher prison and is feared by all in San Pedro inmates.
- The richer prisoners are allowed to have their families live inside the prison with them.
- The prison has a kinder garden for children and child and mothers are allowed to leave the prison when they feel necessary
- It has a small swimming pool which the kids use during the days but can also be a form of punishment for prisoners who don’t behave.
Due to the cold conditions being sent into the pool for the 12 hours of night can be very dangerous causing serious health conditions or even resulting in death.

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So anyways you probably understand the sort of jail this is. Money is king and is the difference between an easy sentence and death. The more money you have inside those prison walls the better your quality of life. The kitchen is run by inmates but only 3 times a week the meals are eatable. These three meals are the only ones in the week that contain meat. To live inside the walls of the jail you must use the restaurants. To use the restaurants you need money…it really is a tuff life for those who have nothing. The people inside the jail walls without money are visible as soon as you walk in; they are frail, lifeless and very close to death. The other meals during the week is a watery soup that most say is uneatable.

Getting into the jail was a lot easier than I expected but also a little daunting. I managed to get two other travellers to come with me as I thought bringing in my blonde haired Norwegian girlfriend into a high maximum prison probably wouldn’t be the best idea. Plus knowing her aunty and grandma well I thought if I ever wanted to see them again and not be strangled to death I better leave Tonje at home. So within minutes of arriving at the San Pedro Prison front gate we were soon in the prison guard office paying our fee (bribe) to get in a literally signing our lives away. Some official comes up to us and writes a number in texta on each of our arms and within seconds we were directed into the main courtyard of the prison. Once getting in there, we arrange for a guide and a protector, both of who you must “tip” afterwoods. Both were lifelong criminals, one (the talkative one) had been in prison in L.A and was a great story teller and very informative. His first story about the first time he arrived at San Pedro prison made all my hairs on my back stand. His first purchase was a massive machete and to prove his strength his was going to kill the first person who attacked him. Thankfully for him, or his attacker the jail was good to him from day 1 and his murder plan never had to be used. The other guy was reserved, quiet, scary and very powerful within the jail walls…a little nod from this guy and people got out of our way.

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Although the prison had a few western inmates I have to admit I didn’t really pick the people I went in there with well. Me with my curly brown hair and big nose could have slotted straight into the prison without too many head turns, but the Norwegian guy with his two foot red afro and the 6 and a half foot English fela made it a little harder to blend in.

For people looking into doing this tour and fear the situation will be rewarded at the end, it’s one of the most informative tours I have ever been on, they answer all questions and really do give an insight into life behind prison walls. The start of the tour is a little uncomfortable but after 20minutes you do feel quite safe. The area you visit first is the worst, where the smell of the toilet is very strong and the people quite twisted and spooky. Your protector is respected and tourists are a means of money so you are looked after as much as humanly possible. There have been instances of riots and other bad behaviour but they do keep that pretty quiet to get tourist coming back. The tour showed as all parts of the jail, nowhere was spared. It really was worth the non-negotiable price of 400bolivianos….i think about $50. This doesn’t include the tip to the prisoners. After the 1 hour or so tour the guide and the scary protector take you into a small little basement type room, its small ceiling, darkness and one exit makes it quite scary, they then ask if we would like to participate in anything. Fearing for the worst I made sure my belt was tightly fastened and I gripped onto my jeans holding them up with all my mite, promising myself not to let go no matter what the circumstance.
What i wasn’t really expecting was for them to offer us cocaine. Not just any cocaine supposedly the best in the world. Even Paris Hilton hasn’t sampled this sort of quality. Since smuggling cocaine out of an extremely corrupt and dangerous prison wasn’t really high on my “to do list” I shook my head side to side and said my no thankyous and handed over my $10 tip for the tour. Thinking we all would do the same I was surprised that my English friend decided this was too good of an offer to refuse and started filling his shoe up with the stuff before we left. The Norwegian guy skin turned a colour I had never seen before and before we knew it we were on our way out of the prison…………
I must say I think the English guy was sweating a lot on the way out (must have been the altitude). Getting through the guards and out back to normal civilization was a treat and finally again my English friend could breathe easy again. Even though he still had to limp around until he made it to the nearest café.

It was an amazing experience and something I am so happy I did. I recommend the tour to anyone willing to sign there life away for a few hours. I also recommend the book marching powder to anyone who is travelling as it is the topic of many backpackers’ stories.

Rumour has it that it may be turned into a big movie within the next few years. Brad Pitt name has been linked to it, which will bring a lot of unwanted attention to the prison and may cause the end to tours in the future.

James

Posted by Oreo 09:32 Archived in Bolivia

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