There’s been a lot in the media recently about the prisons in England and Wales. They’re overcrowded and under-staffed. There’s been an increase in violence, in terms of self-harm, suicide, rioting and assaults by prisoners on each other and on staff. New psychoactive substances (NPS) have become a popular drug choice as they’re difficult to detect through conventional drug testing methods. Spice, a synthetic cannabinoid, is the most common NPS used in prison and seems to be part of the problem with increasing violence. As well as a general interest in prisons and the history of prisons, in the past I’ve visited around 35 prisons as part of my work at the Public Health Institute. Also, my brother was a prison officer for almost a decade.
Recently when reading another news report on the issues in the prisons in England and Wales, this got me thinking about my visit to San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia, when I was travelling in South America in 2009. San Pedro prison is a bizarre tourist attraction. And it’s certainly a unique prison.
Rusty Young’s book, Marching Powder, is probably what made San Pedro prison become so popular with tourists. The book describes the encounters of an English prisoner who became known for offering tours in the prison. So why did I visit San Pedro prison? I was intrigued and fascinated that you could so easily have a tour in an operational prison. At the time I didn’t know much about the prison and hadn’t yet read the book, but other backpackers I met had described it as a prison like no other and a must see in La Paz.
Although I was travelling alone, I went to San Pedro prison with some people I met earlier on my travels. I don’t think my parents would ever have forgiven me if I went there on my own. We arrived at the plaza outside of the prison and waited to be approached, as advised. We paid our entrance fee and were taken over to the prison gates. We signed the visitors’ book and then had a number written on our arms so that we could be identified and released at the end of the tour. We were introduced to our tour guide and bodyguard, both of which were prisoners. That’s how easy it was to get into San Pedro.
So what makes San Pedro prison so unique and appealing for tourists? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit a prison like no other. It’s a community within itself and you basically need to have money to survive in San Pedro. You need to buy everything; food, clothes, medicine and even a roof over your head. If you can’t afford to buy a cell, you can get a mortgage, rent one or rent a space in one. And if you can’t afford any of these options then you’re homeless within the prison. There are various zones or ‘neighbourhoods’ within the prison, and the price of housing varies from the poorest to wealthiest areas. Although it’s a prison for males, their wives and children often live there voluntarily, but are free to come and go, because it’s cheaper and deemed safer. Yes, I’m still talking about a prison.
Walking through the prison we saw a gym, restaurants, bars and shops selling groceries and souvenirs. There was a football match being played and children playing outside. The prisoners, women and children were going about their daily lives as anyone would outside of prison. Every now and again I was reminded that I was in a prison, for example, when we were shown the “swimming pool” as it was known, which is often used to drown rapists and child abusers.
Tourism is a huge income for the prison. Tourists can pay for tours, food and drink, gifts and even cocaine. Cocaine is the largest source of income for the prison. As well as selling it within the prison walls, it is sold outside. I imagine it’s easy to traffic drugs when so many visitors and family members come and go as they please.
So where were the prison officers? They were at the gate, monitoring who was entering and leaving the prison. But they were nowhere to be seen within the prison itself. The prisoners govern the prison themselves, managing everything from maintenance to healthcare to housing to education. Clearly this makes the management of the prison cheaper for the government.
Was I nervous on my tour of San Pedro prison? Of course I was, or at least I was in the beginning. I was in a prison without being escorted by an officer (I’m not sure the prisoner come bodyguard counts) and the prison was full of dangerous criminals; however the prisoners and their families were all very friendly and welcoming. Maybe the women and children being present made it a little less frightening. And because it didn’t look or feel like a prison at all. It felt like I was on a tour meeting the locals in a neighbourhood in La Paz, not in a prison.