…I bribed my way into prison?
If we’re friends in real life, I have little doubt I’ve regaled you with this one. It makes me sound worldly, daring, and like the world’s edgiest librarian. It’s often met with the words (or a look that says) “You? Quiet, bespectacled, little you?” as if small stature and poor eyesight provide immunity against foolhardy adventures. The first line post-retelling is often, “My god, you’re brave,” and I am quick to point out it’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Needless to say, this story is one I told my poor mother about after the fact. She worries so; can’t imagine why.
Seven years ago, give a couple of weeks, quiet, bespectacled, little I was having dinner in La Paz, Bolivia, with a troupe of travellers I had just met. One of the blokes mentioned a prison nearby (San Pedro), which ran tours in spite of being a working facility. Something in the back of my memory nudged my frontal lobe, calling to mind the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young. I hadn’t read it at this stage, though a friend back home had raved about it, and if he knew I forwent the opportunity to go inside the prison, I was confident he’d strangle me with his bare hands. This knowledge, coupled with an inherent fascination by true crime, was enough to sell me on the idea. I recruited another (Dorothy, aged 64) to join me the following day. Obviously a much older complete stranger is sufficient security in the world of prison tourism.
We found our way on foot to the prison the next morning, despite its unassuming exterior: save the two small watchtowers, police bus out front and a rifle-wielding guard or two with an air of supreme nonchalance, it could’ve been any old pink building. (Yes, pink.) We had been told that by loitering in the park across the road, an invitation inside would come forth in no time. Despite our efforts not to look like tourists, our white skin was a bit of a giveaway. Anyway, we put our best loitering skills to use, and were overlooked in favour of a line of locals with large supplies of foodstuffs. We began to think Sunday was perhaps for family and food supplies only, or maybe the guards were an infrequent presence and a deterrent to break-in tourists. We were just about loitered-out when approached by an older white lady with a raspy South African accent – the kind of voice that in another body would be interesting because of how much it keeps inside, but in her betrayed only a lifetime of cheap cigarettes. I had been sure she was just another tourist, and thought every other shady character to make eye contact with me was my “in,” but I’ll never know what was on their minds. It was very exciting to finally be approached, particularly as our Plan B at that stage only included buying tomatoes. She walked us straight into her “office” on the inside, past the guards, told us to hide our cameras on our persons, and after coming back and forth a few times (presumably seeing to it that the right bribes were laid) we were allowed straight in.
You may have gathered that this isn’t a typical prison. Inmates have to pay for everything as per “real life.” Cells must be bought or leased, food paid for by the individual. As such, everyone has a job: there are artisans, chefs, hairdressers, carpenters, doctors, tour guides and plenty of drug dealers. All told, it’s really just an insular, smelly, dirty, dangerous gated community. Wives and children are permitted to live there too, and without the financial contribution of a husband/father on the outside, are often left with no viable alternatives. They come and go as they please, and while the kids were cute (as far as kids go) one wonders how many of them will end up residing there for the duration of their natural lives, free to go or otherwise. Our guide, Ramiro, was 19 and in for drug trafficking. His English was pretty basic, and he had hopes of release, going to uni and becoming an English teacher. I wonder if he ever made it. His friend who silently accompanied us was 25 and in for a murder he said he didn’t commit. My better nature wanted to believe him (present company loves an underdog) but my deepest nature is far more cynical. All I could think was, “Everybody’s innocent in Shawshank.”
Thinking like a cynic and behaving like an optimist (or just an invincible 22 year old), it was a sobering reality to walk through a cafe/plaza type area and be told the guys sitting around drinking were all murderers. We were invited into people’s cells where it was not unusual for a sizeable amount of drugs to sit in plain sight. (“Put that away,” I thought. “You could go to prison for that!”) Ramiro seemed to harbour a penchant for washing areas, showing us numerous bathroom and laundry facilities. We were also shown a round cement pit, kind of like a small pool. The explanation we were given was fresh inmates were “initiated” with a chilly nighttime swim, though when speaking to another traveller, I was told three prisoners were recently killed there. Convicted for paedophilia or rape or other sexually-based offences considered particularly heinous, other inmates paid guards to bring in the dead men walking and then turn a blind eye. Lives were evidently inexpensive commodities.
The protocol of money exchange only perpetuated the discrepancy between currency and value. The smaller cells constituted an upfront payment of US$120 – a substantial amount for a Bolivian prisoner, and even with Sydney property the price it is, it’s more than I’d pay for the pervasive smell of sewage wherever you go. The cells at the wealthier end of the spectrum were owned by the prison’s drug lords and mafia dons (and were closed off to the general public. They came literally with a five star rating.) Ironically, with the majority of the population charged and/or sentenced with/for drug-related crimes, one’s notoriety in a den of thieves can better one’s living standards. The worse your crime, the better things are for you on the inside. Go big or go home. Plenty of men awaiting trial on trafficking charges were not expecting a fair hearing and were trying to raise the requisite US$4000 for a get out of jail free card. Talk about profiting from the proceeds of crime.
Now I’m not an expert on criminal detainment, but this place seemed an easy escape. There was no barbed wire, Dorothy and I walked in and out without so much as a pat-down or bag check, and inmates didn’t have uniforms. In fact, a group had tunnelled their way to freedom quite recently. Given the murder the previous week, one can quite understand why. You’re not allowed cameras inside, but given the only official guards are outside, in the watchtowers and at the entrance (the guards on the inside are merely inmates trying to earn their keep), it was a very simple operation to get away with. Including tips and entry fee it was 275 Bolivianos, about AU$60. A huge amount of money by their standards, which apparently goes toward facilities for the children. I’m not sure how much it would’ve cost to spend the night; one might wonder why on earth someone would do this, but keep in mind the purity and low cost (not to mention abundance) of the drugs available. Rumour has it in years since gone by, two female travellers stayed overnight and the resulting attacks were enough to shut down the tourism operation completely. The official version is that these tours have never happened. My naive theory at the time was that if anything happened to me, a tourist, it would be ruined for everyone. Surely nobody would risk the money tourists bring in, right? I could’ve screamed bloody murder and no one would’ve heard me. Plus I’m certain my body folds up into a size no greater than an IKEA flatpack.
I read the book on my return to Australia, and am relieved I did so in that order. It’s the true story of an English drug smuggler imprisoned in San Pedro, written by an Australian who paid the guards to let him reside in the prison for several months. I suppose I’ll have to come up with an idea for a book all on my own since this one has been done already. Even to myself I seem like an unlikely candidate to author a book on prison life, but I probably have enough material for a novel detailing the misadventures of a wayward librarian.
And yes, Jo… There will be a character named after you 😉