Today’s guest post is a very unique story by Jason Batansky, from Locationless Living, a location independent traveler who apparently has no fear. Although sneaking into a Bolivian prison may not sound like a tourist activity, Jason shares his very unique experience doing just that. This is a fantastic read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Entering a Bolivian prison sounds like a nightmare scenario for most travelers. Third world prisons generate a fear and fascination that western culture exploits in TV shows like “Looked Up Abroad.” And there’s a movie coming out supposedly soon) based on Rusty Young’s book “Marching Powder,” which tells of his experiences in Bolivia’s San Pedro prison. This is also where I was in July of 2009. But instead of being sentenced there by a Bolivian judge, I snuck in. And I was speaking to a high level opposition leader who was there as a political prisoner.
Backpacking is awesome.
I should probably explain that San Pedro prison is not hard to sneak into. They have tours there. Kids play there. San Pedro has to be the most unique prison in the world. In San Pedro, the prisoners run the prison. The prisoners elect leaders, pay rent on their cells, and have their own businesses. Some move their families there. The guards are only there to keep them in. (Although there are day passes.) The laws there, created and administered by the prisoners and their elected officials, are enforced strongly and violently. There are women and children living there. It’s a kind of jail city state that is probably the most unique form of imprisonment in the world. Naturally, I wanted to see it.
When I went, I wasn’t real confident in my chances of getting in. In fact, the taxi driver pretty much called me a moron for even trying. Although there had been tours before (Young became famous for giving English language tours there) they were shut down now. A shoe shine boy working in front of the prison told me that I could just get in line. Seemed simple enough, if a little bold. I figured the worst they could do is find out I didn’t have a reason to be there and not let me in. I couldn’t imagine they would punish me for trying to sneak into a prison by putting me in prison.
I got into the line. There were three checkpoints. I got a stamp or a sharpie mark on my arm for each one. First a pat down, then a guy who looked at my passport and asked me who I was visiting.
“Jose,” I offered, weakly.
“Jose P. He’s a friend. Of a friend.”
The guard laughed. He asked me what hostel I was staying at. He knew exactly what I was doing and seemed amused by it. He let me pass, then a metal detector check point and I was in.
Immediately prisoners came up to me, offering a variety of crafts and snacks for sale. I was a little intimidated, not knowing what proper protocol was. Then someone came up to me and asked what I was looking for. I said someone who speaks English. He walked over to another man and brought him to me.
This was going to be my guide, I learned. He spoke little English, but I understood most of what he told me.
There was a lot to see. It is a veritable city, after all. But the most interesting part was when my guide told Leopoldo Fernandez that I was a journalist wanting to interview him. I didn’t know who Leopoldo Fernandez was. But I asked him to start at the beginning, figuring that was a sort of neutral question that might explain why this man would only speak to journalists, and why my guide was willing to lie to give me an opportunity to talk to him. Turns out he was the opposition party’s vice presidential candidate, and a former governor. (I double checked his story later, all true.) He had been held in prison for a year without charges (he has since been charged with murder, terrorism, and conspiracy, among others.) His Spanish was hard to follow, but he definitely had the fiery voice and convictions of a seasoned politician. He railed against President Evo Morales, being angry in the controlled way of a professional subversive.
My guide took me to other parts of the prison. We bought barbeque, we saw the church and the pastor. I was offered cocaine and when I passed my guide partook. He showed me a shank and told me that he had killed a man with it years before. After that I paid him promptly for his time. And then I left, exercising freedom that I was suddenly grateful for. It is a kind of freedom to be able to forget the struggles of the men who seek to build a better life inside prison walls, and the men who are in prison walls because they
tried to build a better life outside of them.
Note: I met a Danish prisoner, Sebastian, who asked me to pass along his cell phone number (2324002). If you want to arrange a tour in advance calling Sebastian might do the trick.