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an unforgettable experience in san pedro prison (sabado, 9 octubre)

La Paz, Bolivia


This morning I met up with Julio and he introduced me to his friend, Carmelo, who had done 8 months in San Pedro for drugs. We walked to San Pedro Prison. It´s one of the weirdest, atypical prisons in the world, and I wasn´t going to pass it up. I had to wait for a little bit in the plaza outside of the prison while Carmelo arranged the details with the prison guards, but it was a nice, sunny day so I didn´t mind. Carmelo came back and said we needed to wait for about an hour, so we went to a place called Nueva Era where I ordered carrot and potato soup and maracuya juice.

An hour later, we walked back to the prison. Getting in wasn´t too difficult. Carmelo introduced me to a friend, who brought me through the prison gates, where one of the police wrote a number on my arm, searched my bag, and asked me a few questions. Inside, I met my ´tour guide,´a guy named Juan Carlos who was arrested for being an accomplice in a drug deal. He could speak English and Spanish, so the tour alternated between different languages. He showed me all parts of hte prison and explained the prison society, introduced me to other prisoners, etc. Inside, there are only male prisoners, but many of their wives and children live in their cells with them. The cells are more like dorm rooms (complete with stereos, cell phones, microwaves, furniture, etc) than cells. The family unit in Bolivia is more ´traditional´than in the US. If the dad gets arrested, he is still expected to be a father to his children and take care of them. The whole family will live in a cell (the wife and kids can leave the prison whenever they want) because there is so much poverty in Bolivia and it´s hard for a woman to find work and provide for her kids. I talked to a few of the wives and watched the kids play soccer in the plaza of the prison.

There are also restaurants inside, where I ordered a vegan fruit smoothie for less than $1. The cops also never enter the prison. The prisoners have to do everything themselves...cook, clean (well not always, parts of it are kinda dirty), work (in restaurants, making crafts, maintenance, and security). At first I saw a bunch of guys wearing black uniforms that said ´SEGURIDAD´(security) and carrying batons, so I was relieved...then Juan Carlos told me that the security inside are also prisoners, but ones who don´t have a record of violence (they have drug offenses), and who have good reports of prison behavior. There are also cocaine labs inside the prison. It is made cheaply in the prison and it costs less to buy a gram of coke than it does to buy a bottled water. Almost all of the prisoners use coke, and many also use pasta basé (crack) which is a big problem in the prison. However, the guards don´t care as long as everybody is peaceful and not violently causing problems. Because the prison is so different than others, and the guards do not go inside, the prisoners almost always behave, because if they don´t they´ll get sent to a worse prison or they´ll lose the ´freedom´they have inside, compared to other prisons. Juan Carlos introduced me to some of his fellow-prisoners who are his friends (Pablo, Jose, and I forget the third guy´s name). I met a lot of prisoners and they were kind of stand-offish at first, but when they realized I can speak Spanish, suddenly became really friendly and nice (Bolivians don´t generally like Americans, because our government persuaded their government to crack down on drug laws, which severely hurt their economy and contributed to more poverty and broken families. It also was corrupt bc the money the US gave to Bolivia to help with the drug enforcement program was embezzled by some of the higher-ups in the Bolivian government, so the foreign aid never actually was used to help the people. And the police are severely underpaid so they will arrest as many people as possible in order to earn more money to support their own families...it just goes in circles).

I heard MANY different perspectives from the prisoners about their lives, offenses, life inside and outside the prison, the justice system (which operates along lines of bribery), their attitudes, views on cocaine/crack/drugs, etc, gangs (some of them are in prison gangs in LaPaz, some are ex-gang members who want to change), and Christianity. There are 5 churches in the prison (ecclesiastical, catholic, orthodox, protestant, and jehovah´s witness). Some believe, some don´t, and some have found God. One guy told me that prison wasn´t completely bad because it was there he learned about God and learned that he still can have hope to change his life. It was really interesting, and it was difficult leaving, mostly for the same reasons it was hard leaving my job in the US. I felt like most of the prisoners weren´t that different than the kids I used to work with, except these are adults and speak a different language. Many seemed very kind, intelligent, and creative. Juan Carlos did not introduce me to the ´crazy´ ones. Part of me wants to get a joint masters in social work and criminal justice and work as a prison social worker. In some ways it was a shame I was there for such a short time instead of getting the chance to actually help these people like the kids I used to work with.

I also felt like I want to spend more time (quasi-permanently) in La Paz and figure out a way to volunteer /work inside this place with the kids who have to live there. Prison is no environment for kids to grow up (especially since the prisoners do drugs inside--I watched people doing coke and was talking to a guy while he was smoking crack), they face much discrimination when they leave the prison walls, and grow up too quickly, not having the innocence and happy childhood they should have. They only learn how to ´survive´ as opposed to live, and miss out on many opportunities normal kids have. Even if I didn´t get paid I really want to figure out a way to do some sort of thing to work with these kids and teach them about choices and that they DO have a future. Many of the current prisoners have parents who were also prisoners and that kind of life is all they know and it{s hard to get out of a life of crime. The circle just keeps coming around, and I want to look into organizations in order to help break that circle somehow. All the prisoners are adults, but in many ways reminded me of the kids I worked with back home. Just now are they (well not all of them) learning the consequences of their actions, responsibility, and the power of their mind to make choices that affect their lives. Working with adults in the prison population would also be really good...even though they´re older, it isn´t ever too late for someone to change their life. Often the adult prison population is ignored and lacks the appropriate counseling/social work programs/ skills programs etc in order to support them with their struggles and efforts, and I also would like to do something about this... for these reasons it´ll be incredibly difficult wanting to come back to the US. There is a lot more need for social workers down here and finding a job would not be hard. No one here wants to work in prisons or youth detention centers because they are just regarded as ´screwups´by the rest of society, especially in Bolivia which is the poorest and possibly most corrupt South American country.

After I went to the prison I went to the markets and tried api, which is a traditional hot juice drink made out of corn. I ordered a kind called mexclado (mixed) because it uses purple and yellow corn. It is really sweet. Then I walked down Calle Jaén, which is one of the historic cobblestone streets. I went to bed early, planning on going to the ruins of Tiwanaku the following day.

permalink written by  Sara Florecita on October 9, 2010 from La Paz, Bolivia
from the travel blog: año de dos inviernos (Chile 2010)
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Sara Florecita Sara Florecita
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-I am participating in the Inglés Abre Puertas program run by the Chilean Ministry of Education.
-Hobbies include travelling, writing, reading, learning Spanish and Italian, long-distance running, music, and art.
-I am a college graduate who is trying to find her place in this world.
-I...

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