When I wrote the post about my Bolivian jail tour, I’d looked for the journal I kept at the time, and couldn’t find it. Today I stumbled across my journal stash and thought I’d post the account I scribbled at the time, unfiltered by memory and not intended for public consumption (in other words, not particularly well written). Remember, this is all from this inmate’s mouth, and not necessarily anything to base a research study on.
Feb. 6 [I think this was 1999 – note to self, write years in journals]
I can’t believe I forgot to write about one of the strangest, most interesting excursions we went on in La Paz. Yesterday, Justin, Critoval, Graham, John, Megan and I went on a tour of the La Paz jail [I only remember who half those people were]. An inmate named Fernando charges 40 bolivianos [approximately … not much, Canadian] to show tourists around.
What an amazingly odd place. There are no guards inside, just outside, and the inmates run the place like it’s their own country. To survive, they have to be entrepreneurs. Fernando is a drug dealer who spent time in a New York jail [I’d forgotten he told us that – I thought I just inferred the drug connection because he seemed to be still on them]. He talks English with a New York accent and a mile a minute too. It wasn’t hard to guess he was in there for drugs even before he told us. He’s a skinny, jittery man with a Michael Jordan baseball cap. It was hard to know how much he was bullshitting us, but it was obvious this was unlike any prison I’ve ever heard of.
When he arrived, he was told it would cost him to enter the prsion. When he said he had no money, they put him to work in the kitchen. Saying he’s never worked a day in his life, he paid the fee. The prison rents out its cells – from 50 bolivianos to 300 bolivianos depending on size, location, and how far away from the bathroom. The prisoners all have jobs to earn money – Fernando owns two nightclubs [ah, I’d forgotten he was also the nightclub owner], deals drugs, and does the tours. He hopes to be released next month at an appeal hearing … if he can raise the $25,000 US bribe fee for the judge. First he wants to find someone to take over the tours, but it has to be someone who can fight, to protect the service and the security of the tourists. In the prison for 2 years, Fernando claims to be the #4 man because he’s broken a lot of bones to get there.
Other prisoners run snack shops, make souvenirs out of tin, act as loan sharks, etc. The guards turn a blind eye in order to get a cut.
Fernando claims the prison food is laced with tranquilizers to keep the inmates calm, so they don’t eat the prison food. There are rules about when they can fight (not during the daytime) and a strange code of ethics. Fernando says there is no rape, since women and children can live in the jail with their man, and girlfriends can visit … for a price. Fernando’s nightclub can provide prostitutes, male or female, so he says there is no need for rape, and if someone were to attempt it, they would be dead instantly. When a rapist or child molester enters the prison, he says the inmates offer their own punishment by sticking 6 halves of chili pepper up their ass, or rubbing chili peppers on their penis.
The inmates were very well behaved towards us gringo women – not even as much leering or rude comments as on the streets of Lima. Many seemed stoned and many just plain mean, but the tourists have some protection from Fernando’s buddies.
I felt as though I was close to having a panic attack the whole time, finding it hard to breath. This is not a place just anyone could survive, and I definitely couldn’t.
Travel is great to help you discover things about yourself, like that you wouldn’t survive in a Bolivian prison. Good to know. Unless they put you in for jaywalking, I’m probably pretty safe anyway.
I might post other stuff from my travel journals as the spirit hits. The whining I did when hiking the Inca Trail’s gotta be worth some humility points.