San Pedro Prison is the largest in La Paz, Bolivia, housing around 1,500 inmates, but that’s not what makes it special. Unlike most penitentiaries around the world, this place is a self-organized community with its own market stalls, restaurants, hairdressers and even a hotel. Oh, and no guards.
You’ve probably heard of or seen special prisons before. A few months ago we wrote an article on Norway’s Bastoy Island, where prisoners have hotel-like accommodations, are allowed to walk around freely and engage in a variety of relaxing activities. Today we take you on a tour of San Pedro, in La Paz, Bolivia, a sort of jail town where prisoners are free to live with their families and buy whatever they want without fearing repercussions from the guards. In fact there are no guards inside the large prison, or bars on the cell windows, so inmates have the relative freedom of going wherever they please. The police don’t interfere with the affairs of the inmates, who are expected to resolve their own issues with the help of representatives elected democratically.
Photo: Magdalena Hudranova
San Pedro Prison is divided into eight sections, from the most miserable, to the luxurious La Posta sector, where inmates who can afford to live here have large, comfortable cells with private bathrooms, a kitchen, cable television and even jacuzzi. But it costs between $1,000 and 1,500 to buy one of these luxurious quarters for a whole sentence, and most of the inmates in the prison live in crowded single-room cells. Although authorities give inmates here a relative freedom, there is one small catch – they have to pay for their cells, no matter how small or dirty they are. So, in order to pay rent or buy the cells, most of them have to work like regular people do on the outside. Some sell groceries, other work at food stalls, or as carpenters and hairdressers. During the day, San Pedro jail looks like one of the poor neighborhoods of La Paz, with men going about their daily routines, children running through the streets and women taking care of the households. There are about 200 children living with their fathers in this place, and although many may say this is not the appropriate place to raise a child, their families claim they are better off inside San Pedro than on the streets of La Paz, where they would be discriminated against.
Photo: Magdalena Hudranova
It’s true there are no guards inside San Pedro prison, and authorities usually don’t intervene unless there’s a big riot, but this place is not some lawless hell. There is a system of laws and rules created by the inmates themselves, and those who break them are severely punished by the other inmates, some even killed. Still, at night, the Bolivian prison isn’t exactly the safest place in the world. Inmates steal from each other and fight with knives without fearing outside intervention. There are natural and “accidental” deaths recorded each month, but that doesn’t seem to bother anybody very much.
Photo: Quirky Guide
News and stories about the free prison of La Paz spread quickly as the Internet became more popular, and tourists started flocking to this unusual place. Many paid around 250 pesos for a tour, and some of the more influential inmates set up tourism operations and started making fortunes. But as rumors about people coming to San Pedro prison with the sole purpose of buying the cocaine made by prisoners inside( rumored to be the purest in Bolivia) spread, authorities finally decided to put their foot down and put an end to the thriving tourism business. There were too many photos and videos posted online from inside one of the world’s largest prisons, and some of the inmates had gotten too greedy and cocky, so something had to be done. There are still posts about tours of San Pedro jail online, but officially the place has been off-limits to tourists since 2009. Still, the family members of inmates can come and go as they please.
Unlike other prisons, where drugs are a big no-no, inside San Pedro there are several large laboratories producing high-grade cocaine which is then trafficked outside, bringing in important income for the inmates. And if you have money, you can live like a king inside San Pedro, according to its inhabitants. One particular story tells of a rich prisoner who had a second storey built atop his cell so he could have a view of the city outside. It’s definitely not your usual jail.