Prisons in Bolivia are a unique thing – it used to be possible to do tours of the main La Paz prison, San Pedro for example, with a prisoner as a guide to show you what it is really like. Since the tours of have recently ceased, it is hard to know as a free person exactly what the conditions on the inside are like. Unwilling to break the law to find out first-hand, I will have to rely on second-hand accounts of life inside to find out if it really is as bizarre as people say.
Bolivia’s legal system offers various forms of liberty under bail after the initial paperwork is done, and the amount of bail depends on the gravity of the crime committed. A judge can deny bail for serious offences, and also makes the initial decision about whether the evidence is sufficient to hold the accused. According to the law, this decision should be made in 20 days, but it usually takes three to four months, after which time comes the trial and the sentencing. It is a very slow process and one that often means the innocent are locked up for ridiculous lengths of time, without conviction.
This leads to more people being detained in jail, something which adds to the Bolivian prison system’s biggest problem – overcrowding. All of the prisons in Bolivia are holding more people than were originally planned. For example, San Pedro prison was built 130 years ago to house 250 inmates, but now contains 1400 individuals. The overcrowding is so serious many prisoners don’t have their own cells, and sleep in corridors or share rooms with more than 30 other individuals.
This overcrowding is partially due to anti-narcotics Law 1008. In 1989 Congress approved this in an effort to meet the requirements set out in the 1987 Counter-Narcotics Agreement with the USA. This law set out a parallel court system for drug offences, and allowed authorities to detain alleged drug traffickers without sound evidence for upwards of three to four years whilst awaiting trial. This means that currently 80% of people being held in prison in Bolivia have not been sentenced.
The government has tried to alleviate this problem with the Pardon and Extraordinary Freedom Jubilee 2000 Law. This law aimed to reduce the overcrowding by pardoning and reducing sentences for certain individuals. It granted pardons for people under 21 years and over 60 years, and reduced felony sentences by a third for all prisoners sentenced prior to August 2000. It also pardoned all parents of minor children who had served more than 50% of their sentence. However, not all prisoners found their sentences reduced – there were exceptions for prisoners serving more than ten years who had committed ‘serious’ crimes, such as rape, murder and narcotics trafficking. This has been a success in that it has reduced the overcrowding somewhat, but it hasn’t removed the problem altogether.
Overcrowding is still such a problem that in “carceletas” (detention centres) intended for those who are underage and/or awaiting trial – there are now normal prisoners serving time. There is no segregation between either adult and juvenile detainees or those awaiting trial and those who have been convicted. Those awaiting trial are in legal limbo known as “depóstio judicial” (judicial depository) where nobody takes responsibility for them. This term has no basis in law, and many of the accused rely on defence lawyers assigned to them by the courts who do not necessarily tell them what decisions have been made with regards to the case.
A visit by Amnesty International in June and July of 2000 to 9 of the 17 prisons here in Bolivia found conditions failed to comply with United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The organisation has long-standing concerns about prisons in Bolivia. Despite the adoption of both constitutional and legislative measures to protect the human rights of the inmates, reports of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of Bolivian security forces continue. This suggests, as the organisation put it, “a pattern of systematic and extensive violations of human rights over the years.”
Most prisons have no heating or ventilation, and the vast majority of prisoners are forced to sleep on the floor, as beds, mattresses and blankets are not provided by the authorities. In San Pedro prison the poorer inmates occupy cells 3x4x6 feet, with no ventilation, lighting or beds, and the poorest prisoners don’t even have the luxury of a cell and have to sleep in corridors. In “low rent” areas, some prisoners are forced to sleep sitting-up.
For affluent prisoners this is not a problem, as wealth can determine anything from the cell size to visiting privileges to the place or length of confinement. Cells are bought upon arrival in prison, and prices range from U$17 to U$4340 – there are reports of some prisoners having jacuzzis! The money is paid to the previous occupant or those who control the cell blocks, and the prisoner gets to live a life of luxury for the duration of their confinement.
The standard prison diet can lead to anaemia – the government only spends U$ 30 cents a day on food for the prisoners, and those who can afford it tend to supplement their diet in any way possible. They do this by working from the inside – female prisoners tend to wash clothes that are brought in daily to earn a bit of money, and male prisoners work in carpentry shops or, formerly, as tour guides like in San Pedro prison.
Healthcare is inadequate and it is very difficult to get permission for outside treatment – in many cases medical care is provided by the inmates themselves. However, affluent prisoners can obtain transfers to preferred prisons or even to outside institutional care for “medical reasons.” Money is power inside – everything can be bought.
Control within the institutions is another problem with Bolivian prisons. With the exception of the high security prison Chonchocoro in El Alto, the government authorities effectively only control the outer security perimeters to stop people escaping. Inside, the prisoners are in control, such is the level of corruption among low-ranking and poorly paid prison wardens and guards. The authorities thus can not ensure the safety of prisoners at the hands of others. For example in August 1999 ten Peruvians had to be taken to hospital after being attacked by 200 Bolivian inmates in El Abra prison, Cochabamba. Fights, drunkenness and killings are frequent within the prisons in Bolivia, and the Peruvian’s injuries would probably not even have made the news had they not been foreign.
Punishments and torture from the security forces are not uncommon either. A popular torture is known as “el arrastre” (dragging). This entails two people sitting on top of the victim whilst two others drag him along the floor, something which can lead to punctured lungs. It is common in the early stages of detention as a means of gleaning information, pre-trial. This actually killed a 19-year-old man in February 2001.
Another common punishment is a cell called “El Bote”, which is a form of solitary confinement. Individuals are left in a tiny cell with no lighting, ventilation or sanitation, and no human contact for weeks at a time. This again goes against the UN Rules, and basic human rights.
There are many children who live with their parents in the prisons. Only children under six years of age are supposed to live-in, but in reality children as old as 12 do, leaving daily to go to school. At the beginning of 1998 as many as 2200 children lived in Bolivian prisons, with the numbers growing around holiday times. This can lead to problems – on New Years Eve 1998, during celebrations a girl was raped and murdered by another inmate in San Pedro. However, the courts feel it is more humane to let the children live with their parents than be left on the streets to fend for themselves. Children inside serve a purpose for prisoners – they leave daily for school and are the most important way of bringing drugs, alcohol, and other luxuries into the prisons.
Children are not the only people in the prisons who are studying though. Many of the prisoners study from the inside, and some do distance learning at the universities as “alumnos libres”, which ironically means free students, for people who are unable to attend the classes themselves. Even more ironically, there are no laws against former prisoners joining the police force once they are released.
The prison system in Bolivia is very under-funded and not well-organised, but hopefully this will change with the implementation of the UN Rules, and the further publicity created by the Amnesty International Report.
Unless you would like to experience any of the above first hand, I would advise staying on the right side of the law whilst in Bolivia!