Prisons in Bolivia

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Oops. My tourist visa expired and I am still in Bolivia.

Well, one more country whose prisons I will experience first-hand. In the case of Bolivia, the prison system is particularly interesting.

Many prisons in Bolivia are only staffed on the outside of the perimeter. Inside, the inmates organize everything themselves. It’s like a small self-governed town, only rarely visited by guards or police.

There is a vibrant market economy because you have to rent or buy your cell. If you don’t have or don’t make the money, you sleep on the floor.


But making money is not a problem because there are plenty of jobs. You can also open a business, anything from a restaurant to a carpentry shop to an internet café. I might finally have no other choice but to earn my living as an English or German teacher. Unless people will pay me to tell stories.

carcel San Pedro La Paz Coca Cola.png
San Pedro prison in La Paz is sponsored by Coca Cola. Seriously.

The other interesting aspect of Bolivian prisons is that your family can live with you. The wives and children of many inmates join them in prison, allowing them to stay together as a family in hard times. Obviously, the wife and the children are free to leave whenever they want. They go to work and school and return at night.

carcel Palmasola children.png
An interesting place to grow up.

Sadly Luckily, I don’t have any family or children. But here come the good news: Friends can visit as well, and you can even bring books and food.

According to this price list for Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, you can stay overnight for a small fee. For someone from abroad, the monthly rent is not too steep either. And you’ll get Spanish lessons for free.

carcel Palmasola prices

San Pedro prison in La Paz allegedly even has one or two hotels. Some tourists visit the prison for a tour, others visit to buy drugs because that prison has the best cocaine laboratory in the country.

If you are trying to make up excuses for not visiting me in prison, you have no chance. It’s really easy and it ain’t dangerous. Watch this clip about the former US-American inmate Jacob Ostreicher, for example. Both a TV crew and his wife can visit him and bring him food and – more importantly – books.

In all seriousness now,

  • these prisons are still dangerous places. There is murder, rape and torture.
  • these are just more drastic examples of what is true everywhere in the world: Prisons are a breeding ground for more crime and universities where petty criminals learn the hardcore stuff.
  • I completely disapprove of the lack of state oversight, but I like the idea of regular family contact, as I think it helps with resocialization. In other countries, a prisoner can behave as fine as he wants, once he is released his wife might have left him and he falls back into a big hole, just when he would need all the support he can get.
  • if any of my Bolivian readers has friends or relatives in prison and can organize a visit for me, I am very interested!
  • if you don’t hear from me for a couple of weeks, you know where to start looking.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Bolivia, Economics, Law, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Prisons in Bolivia

  1. Pingback: Gefängnisse in Bolivien | Der reisende Reporter

  2. David says:

    That is a bizarre story!

  3. Adaku says:

    Wow! Bolivia really is an interesting place! Hope you don’t become even more hard core, Andreas ;)

  4. brokenradius says:

    It is probably a bit more difficult for you to get into a prison in Bolivia than in Tehran. The difference is that in Evin you had probably only intellectuals and political prisoners around you (so only discussing some ideas of Freedom and Human Rights in public, you had won your ticket to Evin). But there in Santa Cruz, I guess we have real criminals in the jail. so without doing any bank robbery, murder, drug dealing etc. they don’t let you in.

    • But some arrests in Bolivia appear to be mere “shakedowns”, like that of Jacob Ostreicher. While the targets of this practice are often foreigners, I hope that anyone thinking about this has noticed how poor I am.

      I should probably be more worried that someone in the Bolivian government will be annoyed by my political comments. Press freedom is not held in too high of a regard by the Bolivian government and after the lost referendum in February 2016, the government wants to control social media more tightly. And with their tendency to blame gringoes for everything, a foreign blogger would make a good target.

      But you are right about Evin. At the time I was there (June 2009), there went the joke that this one prison holds more PhDs than the rest of Iran combined.

  5. brokenradius says:

    Hi Andreas, I have a serious question to you as an inside observer of various Latin-American countries (not sure if this term is politically correct, but still widely used here without any negative connotation) : my question is if, considering the economic and political difficulties in these countries, about which not only your blog reports, are there also migration movements between the countries ? Are people also leaving their home to look for a better future abroad, say from Argentina to Uruguay, or from Guatemala to Chile etc.? I guess this happens much less in South America, despite most of the people speak the same language. So what makes people to easily leave their home (like from Afghanistan, Maghreb countries, Pakistan, Africa) only to hope for a poor shelter in cold Europe ?
    I would really be interested to read your observations on this issue in the various South-American countries. Maybe you can ask the people there. I mean if anybody complains about the political system or about their poor economic situation, just ask them if emmigration would be an option for them. We know (not only since Donald “the guinea-pig wig” Trump) that there are refugees from Mexico to the US. But do people in South-American proudly admit that they want to become US americans, despite their general feeling of unease with the Yankees ?
    I am really curious to understand this, considering the huge wave of refugees waiting on the European borders to be granted entrance.

    Best wishes

    • Very interesting question! I shall pay more attention to this and ask around.

      So far, I only have some anecdotal evidence that migration within Latin America is taking place, although of course not in numbers like from war-ravaged countries. (I wonder what it was like during the military dictatorships here, though.)

      When I was in Brazil, I met several people who were so fed up with the economic and political situation in Brazil that they were about to move to other countries in South America. Uruguay seems to be a very popular destination. We also have a lot of Brazilians here in Bolivia, but many of them seem to be temporary migrants: they come to Bolivia to study medicine because it is cheaper here. I am not sure how many of them remain or go on to other Latin American countries.

      There are also lots of Argentinian hippies in Bolivia. They “control” the sitting-in-parks-and-playing-guitars-and-juggling “business”.

      There also must have been/be quite a lot of labor migration, because it is often that I meet people who say “my Mom is from Venezuela and my father is Bolivian” or “my mother is Bolivian and my father came from Argentina” or “my parents are both Bolivian, but I was born in Ecuador”. Particularly huge projects, like mines or big dams, seem to attract labor from neighboring countries. As you mentioned, language is no big hurdle. Citizens of the Mercosur states do not even need passports to travel to other Mercosur countries.

      Another important factor is internal migration. In Bolivia for example, there has been a rush to the cities from the countryside. The large cities La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba are growing like crazy and are still attracting people from the countryside and the mountains because of job and schooling opportunities. Given the economic disparity between countryside and city, this can be seen as something similar as a move to a different country. (Many internal migrants will also have to switch from Qetchua to Spanish.)

      I am not sure I would agree that there is a “general feeling of unease with the Yankees”. I don’t observe too much of that, except in Evo Morales’ statements that whenever something goes wrong, it’s a US-financed conspiracy. But I have met several Bolivians who have studied in the US, whose children have emigrated there or who have lived there themselves but have returned (we have to consider that Bolivia as an economy on the whole hasn’t been doing badly and there is no the same crime problem that drives people to leave Honduras, El Salvador or Mexico).

      Generally, people in Latin America discuss migration as an option more openly than Europeans, I would think. Maybe it’s also a more natural thing in a continent that has received a lot of migration and in which most people have immigrant forefathers. It’s not even the very poor (for whom internal migration changes a lot), but the young who just want to experience another continent or learn English or have an odd fascination with Germany or France. It seems to me that this might have less to do with immediate economic need (as always and unfortunately, the people I meet tend to be a bit better off ), but more with good governance, opportunities and a bit of adventure. Some Bolivians also just miss the sea.

  6. brokenradius says:

    Hi Andreas, that sounds interesting. So does it suggest that people in South America (I know it is always questionable to generalize) , despite economic hardship and political instabiliy rarely feel desperation ? How you describe the migration between or inside the countries it seems that people doing it not to escape a past life, rather than looking for a good chance to improve life in the future.
    Than maybe we all should learn from the South American way of dealing with all the odds and obstacles in life. For Germany, in contrast, I currently see a bleak future: traditional German Angst (because the massive devaluation of the savings and pensions) paired with the Arab expectation that wealth must be granted from the government or some rich donors.
    Best regards

    • I think indeed the situation is different, but we also have to consider that South America is much mire stable than Syria or Somalia or Afghanistan. If bombs were going off here all the time, more people would flee too.

      On your two other points:
      1) I don’t see massive devaluation. Inflation, which has traditionally devalued savings, has consistently been at very low levels.
      2) I don’t think Arab refugees coming to Europe have the expectation that rich donors will finance everything. Most of them were not members of the ruling class in their countries either and didn’t benefit from oil revenues. They are hard-working people and I think they will be happy to live in a country where you can achieve something by work, not only by marrying into a royal family or discovering oil.

  7. Melisa Odalis says:

    Ire a visitarte, no te preocupes ;)

  8. Pingback: Next move: Arequipa in Peru | The Happy Hermit

  9. Have you read the full story about Jacob Ostreicher? He ended up getting rescued from prison and fleeing the country in a secret operation set up by the Hollywood actor Sean Penn.

    • I have heard about that, yes, but not yet read a full account.
      I any case, because I don’t know Sean Penn, I am nominating YOU to organize my rescue mission! :-)

  10. Pingback: How does Bolivia deal with illegal immigrants? | The Happy Hermit

  11. Narda says:

    Where did you get the fares for ‘services’ in Palmazola?

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