Building networks and communities behind bars in Bolivia
by David Thompson on
One morning in May 2011, walking into a prison on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, I couldn't help but ask myself what I was doing.
I could try kidding myself that I had some higher humanitarian or academic purpose, but that wasn't quite it. I would have preferred to think it was something a little beyond touristic voyeurism, but to say there was no mere curiosity involved would be a lie.
I found myself there with an Italian girl, met through the friend of a friend of a random encounter in the street in La Paz a week earlier. It was freezing, I had just surrendered my passport to prison guards, walked through empty cell blocks with last year's Christmas decorations still lining the walls, I couldn't help but think of all the bad Hollywood gaol movies I'd seen. And as we finally approached the populated cells I still had no idea what I'd say if someone asked why the Italian had decided to bring a friend today.
Then I met the prisoners. One by one, little by little, over the next few months I would see them every visiting day and slowly my question began to answer itself. I was there to chat, lose at chess, watch movies, and bet bottles of Pepsi on the outcome of football matches.
Perhaps, though, there was a more important question lying behind this experience: what does the fact that I could so easily step behind bars and get to know all these people say about prisons themselves? You wouldn't think of a prison as a particularly open community. I'll rephrase that — a gaol is, or at least is supposed to be, one of the most closed, controlled and limited communities in the world.
Prison populations are actually booming worldwide as the preferred form of punishment; the United States, for instance, has an estimated prison population of over two million . And gaols are supposed to remove evil-doers from society and protect the community from their actions, as well as to punish the prisoner by depriving them of basic freedoms (and through this, to deter other people from doing the same).
The whole idea of being imprisoned, then, is to remove you from society, not to just let anyone come in and say "hi".
But from my experience, when these wafty ideas about justice are moved into a real context, what you end up with is a variety of people (prisoners, guards, NGOs, missionaries and families) all fighting for their own advantage and co-operating with or manipulating each other to make the most of a difficult environment.
There are rules and regulations, to be sure, not only for inmates but for visitors such as myself and for guards as well. But you can exploit or get around most of them quite easily if you want to, and everybody bends the rules to such an extent that the prison that judges and politicians envision is far removed from the one that people live and work in.
That's not to say there aren't some unbreakable laws or firm restrictions. I was only allowed to enter on visiting days — Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — and if I ever lost my visitor's pass I would have had a very hard time working my way back out again. Cells are unlocked at 7am and locked again at 10pm at night. Meals are free and horrible, bring your own plates, no knives allowed so cut your steak with a spoon if you please, and if you arrive five minutes late you will find yourself with nothing.
And of course, if you're an inmate you can't just walk out; most prisoners are allowed to apply to leave for a 24-hour period only once every three months, but the outcome is basically dependent on how the judge is feeling that day.
But beneath these supposedly harsh guidelines, a prison is a permeable place where people, things and ideas move in and out with surprising freedom — how else would an Australian tourist be found wandering around a maximum-security jail? Prohibitions against alcohol and drugs are rather loosely enforced, mostly because many of the prison guards who are supposed to be rehabilitating prisoners sell the substances to inmates.
Similarly, mobile phones are banned and can be found everywhere. Don't like the food? No worries! A few prisoners have set up their own makeshift grocery stores inside their own cells, and their families or friends bring them the goods they sell on to others.
Shortages can and do happen though. One day we were cooking so we wouldn't have to face the prison food again, and we ran out of oil.
"What can we do?"
"Kidnap the gringo and hold him for ransom. I'm sorry David, you can't leave."
"What's your parents' phone number? Or should we send them one of those magazine cut-out letters?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, we have your son. We will release him… for a bottle of olive oil."
Thankfully oil was finally procured, I don't think my poor mother could have handled it otherwise.
This is not a free life in any sense of the term, and inmates want to get out. Yet volunteering in the jail demonstrated to me that whether inside or out, society finds many ways to discipline our minds and bodies, and we all look for ways with which we can fight back and carve out our own sense of agency and self-worth. Or, as one inmate put it to me, "We can't leave, so the world has to come to us".
One man was writing a novel about aliens visiting earth and being greeted by Maoris. Another was planning to study architecture. Yet another was torturing himself and everyone around him with the question of whether he should break up with his girlfriend. One of the prisoners used to call random numbers on his mobile phone to try and meet new people. Although most of them would hang up, some would keep talking, and from a few he was even able to gain some Bolivian pesos. He met a woman this way, just by randomly calling, and eventually she came and met him in jail and they started going out.
Beyond the lofty ideas of justice and Hollywood clichés about jails there are real people who, despite severe limitations, are working to build lives and communities both inside the prison and out. It was certainly strange to feel bad about leaving prison for the last time, even if I was only ever a visitor. But thankfully I have been able to keep in contact with a few inmates in the past year.
A few months ago one prisoner's girlfriend gave birth to two healthy baby twins — I know because he posted the pictures on Facebook.
"What can we do?" "Kidnap the gringo and hold him for ransom. I'm sorry David, you can't leave."
Bolivian prison inmates