From Jail To a 5 Star Hotel

8 09 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel dates: 6.14.08

For Laura’s birthday, she wanted to relax on a white sand beach drinking fruity drinks and swimming in crystal clear water. For my birthday, we went inside a prison. To each his own. After some very strange phone calls I finally managed to set up a meeting with a South African inmate named Stewart who is currently serving a few years at San Pedro prison for drug trafficking. Several years ago they used to have tours inside the jail until, you can imagine, it got too dangerous. Mostly people were buying cocaine inside and taking it out, plus a few more violent incidents. So no more tours. Except in the last year, some of the foreign inmates have managed to convince the guards to let some people inside again. Which brings me back to how we ended up here. We heard about it from our tour guide in Salta, Argetina and I thought that it would be a unique experience. Once in La Paz, we talked to a group who went in that included women who said it was completely safe, so Laura decided she wanted onboard.

The prison is divided into two main sections: one safe to visit, and the one not. When inmates first arrive they are given free lodging for 3 months in the “nicer” section. After that time they have to pay to stay, and if they can’t scrape together the money they get sent to other other side where we weren’t allowed to go because Stewart and Co. “couldn’t guarantee our safety.” There are no cells, no lurking guards, nothing that you would expect from a typical jail. Everyone works: this includes making crafts, selling food, cleaning, whatever they can. Some of the wealthier inmates even have 2 story lofts that, while resembling a worn down cement college dorm room, are super-comfortable considering they are incarcerated. Consider it a self-policed society existing inside the stone walls.

Stewart himself is quite a character. He has spent time in multiple prisons including a maximum security one in Pakistan that housed members of the Taliban. He and a fellow inmate staged an escape and reached the top of the wall before realizing they were surrounded by desert without any clue which direction the nearest town was (which was 8 hours away by car going in a straight line). But he got out legally soon after, only to skip bail in South Africa for other charges before landing in San Pedro, his 2nd prison in S. America. He hasn’t actually been charged with anything yet since every time he goes to court he speaks Africaans–a language similar to Dutch– and pretends to now know English (there are no translators in Bolivia for Africaans). 3 years so far without a trail, but he’s hoping to get out soon.

So we spent a few hours talking about the prison, and the lives of the inmates, most of whom feel very lucky to be there and not in a worse place. They still make cocaine in the prison which you are free to use while inside (no taking outside or else you will become the newest member of San Pedro). They claim there is 0% homosexuality since they are allowed to bring prostitutes in–the cost being between the them and the working girl. Many families stay inside the prison, the women and children able to come and go as they please while the husband remaining. The woman’s prison in town is not so nice a place to end up however.

We parted ways, a bit conflicted. I felt like many of the inmates liked us and they seemed eager for us too stay and talk, and were quite friendly and safe to us the whole time. Problem? Most are drug dealers. Hard drugs. And kind or not, it’s hard to feel too friendly when you think about what that really means, and see some of the people strung out on the road the way we have on this trip. We shook hands and smiled, thanked them for the experience with a bag of snacks and candy (which go to the kids), sodas, some cigarettes, and Pringles. One whacked out inmate complained I got the wrong flavor. Turns out he was the one who I spoke with during all the weird phone calls.

To finish the Birthday celebration, we took a taxi to a 5-star hotel equipped with a sauna, pool, hot water showers and a TV in the room. The staff even snuck in a tiny birthday cake for me, as I lounged in laziness with clean pores and cable TV. We only left the hotel for dinner–sushi–before coming back. After the prison experience earlier, nothing went unappreciated.

Check out the pics from La Paz at our Flickr site***

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