Say what?

Lauren and I were traveling through South America living a life of adventure and building our previous travel startup. We were officially of no-fixed-address and loved it. But our business wasn't working the way we expected. We were frustrated.

It was at this same time that two things happened: 1) we tried to enter Bolivia's San Pedro prison for the adventure of a lifetime, and 2) we came up with the idea for Flightfox. The two seem so totally disparate, but we've learned over the years how foreign surroundings breed the biggest and boldest ideas.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Is it Possible?

For years we’d heard stories of the infamous tours of San Pedro Prison in Bolivia. By law, tourists are strictly not allowed in the prison, but there’s a well-worn path of contacting English-speaking inmates to take you in as their relatives for a tour. And it’s no secret when it’s on Wikipedia and in Lonely Planet guides.

Once I arrived in La Paz, it became my sole mission to gain entry into San Pedro Prison; a prison that even the guards don’t enter. From a trip to the police station, to being scammed and giving up hope, to finding a second-wind, and finally getting in, this was an adventure I’ll never forget (and highly recommend).

The inmates of San Pedro make money to stay alive. No, it’s not all drugs. In fact, it’s mostly baking bread, making children’s toys, and even running hardware stores (complete with hacksaws and power saws). Either way, I’ve never witnessed such a productive environment. It was a real eye-opener as far as prisons go, but also in terms of understanding rehabilitation.

Arriving in La Paz

Once in La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia, every other touristic activity seemed bland in comparison to entering the notorious San Pedro Prison. As soon as I crossed into the city limits, it was final: I planned to do everything humanly possible to get in (and back out again). Why? I have no idea. Maybe it was the challenge, maybe it was the exclusivity, maybe it was that time of the month, you know, to give authority a run for its money. Either way, I had a mission and I was determined to succeed.

Take 1: The Scam

A group of us spent our entire Thursday trying to find a way into the prison. We were two Aussies, one Brit and a Belgian. We met a woman outside the prison in the morning who claimed to be the wife of an inmate. She asked us to meet her again at a church on the other side of town two hours later. We went there and she asked for copies of our passports and gave us a number to call another two hours later. The idea was to pose as her husband’s relatives, so the guards would allow us in. Clearly this sounded very dodgy, but the nature of the tour called for us to be a little more flexible than usual. We’d also heard that the tours had stopped since the release of the book, Marching Powder.

We waited, called the number (which belonged to a phone inside the prison), spoke to an inmate, and he asked us to meet another woman in 30 minutes, each with 300 Bolivianos (approx US$40). It started to seem more dodgy than we were willing to accept. So we ditched this plan and decided to join a much larger group outside the prison an hour later.

The reference to Marching Powder is to a book written about the prison and the tours by an Australian law-graduate, Rusty Young "Rusty Young"). He spent 3 months in the prison to record and recount the story of Thomas McFadden, an English inmate who originally started the prison tours.

An hour later, we became a group of 17, which in retrospect just seems ridiculous if we were to pose as relatives of an inmate. But then a short, stocky, somewhat charismatic African American guy, who claimed to be an inmate out on day-leave, promised to get the group in. He seemed quite convincing, but in hindsight, it all seemed too good to be true. He told us that entry normally costs 400 Bolivianos, but he could get us in for only 200 via the police station. We must have felt overly safe in numbers, and when we found the police would be involved we went along with it (yes, I know, not the smartest move).

This supposed inmate said we needed to pay 50 Bolivianos upfront to the police station to register our names. He told us to wait where we were, but picked the two biggest guys in our group, a ginger-haired Australian and a Bolivian tour leader, to accompany him to the cop shop. This gave us some comfort and consolation.

We waited for what seemed like an eternity, but finally saw the Australian and Bolivian walking towards us shaking their heads. The scam artist had paid off the cops to stop the other two from entering the police station, and exited the back door with the cash for the 17-large group.

We chalked it up as experience and weren’t too upset since it equated to only 7 or 8 dollars each. We all called it a day and headed back to the hostel. Most of the group resigned themselves to defeat, but a few of us knew we’d be back for more.

Take 2: A Little Wiser this Time

A few people at our hostel said that tourists could only get in on weekends, so we waited until Saturday. Lauren and I awoke especially early to beat the ‘rush’ and to get their first. We arrived at about 8:30am and did a single lap of the plaza adjacent to the prison. The plaza was under construction, so we couldn’t take a sly stroll through it, which is the common way to meet fixers that somehow get you in.

After the lap of the plaza, we decided to sit on the curb up the road from the main prison entrance. We hoped to meet another fixer who’d set us up with a call and eventually get us in that day. It was exhausting to think we’d be wasting another day, dealing with scam artists. We sat in the shade so it didn’t seem too obvious, but again, retrospect is wonderful, and we must have stood out like black sheep.

We were becoming quite jaded as time passed. Then suddenly, we noticed a burly Bolivian guy casually approaching. He muttered something way too quickly in Spanish and gestured towards the prison. He could have said, ‘if you don’t leave, we’ll put you in prison’, but we were delirious with nervous excitement and responded with something like, ‘Um, ah, yes, I mean si, oh, the prison, yes, um, si, Si, Siiii!” There was no waiting, there was no call, there was just ‘Vamos!’ And with that sharp, short word that could undeniably seal our fate, we hurriedly followed Oscar (not Flightfox engineer, Oscar - a different one) to the main prison entrance.

At first I felt a sharp rush of adrenaline, but it very quickly turned to butterflies and then to anxiousness. I now know what people mean when they say, “You could cut the atmosphere with a knife”. But I didn’t want to think of knives or any other improvised prison weapon at this point. So with nothing but stolid conviction, I took a gasping breath, tensed my entire body, and continued directly into the prison’s dark, screeching, devilish depths.

The Admittance Process

We naively thought this whole process was completely ‘black ops’. You know, under the counter, off the books, behind closed doors, smoke and mirrors, 007 all the way. It turns out that it’s not. It’s just a nice money earner for everyone involved: the guards, the inmates, the prison bosses, even the scam artists. It was all very organised and process driven, which was a big surprise to us. So much in Bolivia is chaotic, but the corruption is refreshingly efficient.

As an aside, Bolivia is a gorgeous country and not nearly as demonic as its reputation. Coming over the border from Peru, where political propaganda covers every man-made structure, I was shellshocked by the jagged peaks and untouched landscapes. The people are generally very accommodating, and everything’s impossibly cheap, and the capital, La Paz, is unlike any other, especially at over 3,600m elevation. By far it was our favorite country in Latin America. So although I mention the corruption, Bolivia is by no means characterised by it, at least not more so than others.

Back to the prison…. We were ushered into a small room with a short ceiling. A very matter-of-fact female prison guard asked us to write our names and passport numbers into the visitor register, and then she tattooed us using permanent marker. Oscar, the fixer, asked for the 400 Bolivianos and even checked each note to see if it were counterfeit (not uncommon in South America).

It couldn’t get any crazier. We were in a prison, paying off guards to illegally let us in, and now they were making sure we weren’t bribing them with counterfeit notes. What if they found a counterfeit note? Would they throw us into ‘gen-pop’ and throw away the key? But before we could rationalise the absurdity of it all, we were rushed out of the room and towards the main gate.

The main gate towers above you at almost 3 storeys high. Inmates are squeezed against the bars screaming about whatever’s bothering them. And when a couple of tourists approach, it only gets louder, more sinister, and, well, a little unnerving. But this wasn’t the time for introspection; the doors opened, the fixer nudged us through, and we were suddenly in, now on the wrong side of the gate. I looked around, but no, it wasn’t a dream, we were in Bolivia’s largest prison where the inmates really do rule the roost. Woo hoo!

Our Tour Guide

A short man with a bald head greeted us with a smile the size of a watermelon. The first thing I noticed were all of his teeth were ground down to stumps that barely pierced his gums. The second thing I noticed was his competent English. What a godsend! If you’ve ever been in a dicey situation and couldn’t communicate, then you’ll understand the relief. He was accompanied by another younger guy, who would be our bodyguard (we found out later he was serving a full 30 year term).

With the efficiency of the Tokyo train system, our tour guide whipped us through the mêlée at the front gate and into the first division (section) of the prison. Not just any prison, but San Pedro, the one we’d been looking forward to for so long. The positive side finally dawned on me… We were in!

It’s worth mentioning I’m not disclosing the names of people for the protection of everyone and the ‘tours’ themselves.

We followed him through the main courtyard, up a long set of shaky stairs, and into a large musty room. The door closed abruptly behind us. We were asked to sit, while a group of tall dark men gazed at us. My earlier anxiousness had now been replaced by pure terror, but I calmed myself as the men looked away and continued with their earlier work. We were asked to record our names again on a sheet of paper, then our guide hurried us out with serious intent.

The Prison

For the next 2 or 3 hours (not exactly sure; I purposely left my shiny Swiss timepiece at the hostel), we explored each and every crevice of the prison with our trusty toothless guide. He was admittedly a much better guide than most we’d encountered on the ‘outside’. He spoke of the history, but he didn’t over do it. He asked if we were feeling safe, but again, he didn’t over do it. We could tell he’d intensely observed the responses and reactions of his previous ‘customers’ to build a tour that was not too heavy, not too light, but just right.

Here’s an example of what we learned about San Pedro:

  • The prison has 8 divisions (like suburbs, some are nicer than others)
  • The life-time entry fee for an inmate is 500 Bolivianos (~US$70)
  • New inmates are placed in a division based on the day of the week
  • Inmates may choose to change divisions by paying another fee
  • Inmates who can’t pay the entry fee live in small and squalid dorms
  • They can upgrade cells for anywhere from US$200 to $15,000
  • The inmate initiation ritual is to dive into the freezing pool at 3am on the opening of Carnivale
  • Rapists and child molesters used to be drowned, tortured and killed in the pool; now they are semi-segregated and all work in the kitchen, which isn’t segregated
  • The government only funds basic food; inmates must earn money to survive and provide for their family
  • Inmates run shops, build products and provide prison services to generate income
  • Whole families live inside the prison with their related inmate
  • 16 prisoners once dug their way out, but that cell has since been concreted in

The most fascinating aspect of the prison is the economy. Everyone works to generate income, and from our observation, the prison economy is well-oiled and thriving. The second most fascinating aspect is that family members are allowed to live in the prison with the inmates, arguably because they can’t afford to live elsewhere with the money-earner ‘inside’.

The income-generating activities in the prison were about as diverse as the entire country. Men built wooden christmas toys, baked bread, operated restaurants, laundered clothes, serviced the saunas (yes, saunas they built themselves), relayed messages (these guys were called taxis), worked as prison security, ran illegal English-speaking tours and much more.

The ‘taxis’ earned 1 Boliviano ($0.12) per message they relayed. While the security guards all had 30+ year terms, as a prerequisite to their appointment. Otherwise, every square inch of the prison seemed productive. Painted furniture dried on the rooftops, children’s toys baked on the gables, and everyone seemed to move with purpose. There was even a hardware store that sold hacksaws and other tools… yes, within the prison!

The most shocking fact was about the food. Our guide seemed convinced that the authorities drugged the food on a daily basis to reduce the incidence of uprisings and violence. He said this was one of his biggest fears, because no one inside knew the long-term effects of the drugs. He looked forward to his release to spend time with his family, but he feared he’d have a noticeably diminished mental capacity by the time he got out.

What about Rehabilitation?

Around the world, most countries think the best way to rehabilitate is to give inmates everything for free (food, bedding, learning materials, etc.), provide clean and stable accommodation, and then keep inmates only with people of a similar ilk. So basically they don’t have to provide for themselves at all and the only things they grow to know are other criminals and their crimes. Sounds like the Big Brother television series on steroids, and we all know what happens after only a couple of days in those conditions.

Imagine our shock to stand there, in this crazy place Bolivia calls a prison, and think to ourselves, ‘Wow, this place looks like it could actually rehabilitate someone.’ Everyone has to work hard and think hard for their survival. But it wasn’t just survival. Each division was run like a separate government, with elected leaders, charging taxes and providing for the greater population. The efficiency of it all afforded a relatively respectable standard of living and even real luxuries, like Finnish saunas.

Don’t get me wrong, crime was still apparent throughout the prison. Every now and then we’d see someone walking along dazed and confused, obviously as high as a kite. But that contingent seemed a very small minority. Either way, there was no doubt San Pedro works on opposing principles to prisons in the West. Inmates have to provide for themselves, for their division, for their families and they are surrounded by many non-criminals. It seemed a more intelligent method of rehabilitation, and punishment for that matter, since they had to provide for themselves, and survival was tenuous for this very reason, especially in Bolivia.

I’m not suggesting San Pedro is the perfect answer, but it certainly seemed more effective than other prisons. Can you imagine taking the guards out of a Western prison and letting tourists in?

The Inmates

Our guide took us through 7 of the 8 divisions. Up rickety stairs, through tight corridors, peeping into many different cells, and crossing crowded courtyards. We bumped into many different inmates:

  • We walked deep into the dark sweltering kitchen where all the rapists worked; they all seemed to study Lauren with unbridled evil (suffice to say, she wasn’t a fan and left quickly)
  • We glimpsed into the cell of the president of the prison, who used to be the president of Bolivia’s largest bank before he swindled retirees out of their pension savings
  • We walked down the dark hall to the old cell of Bolivia’s current Vice President, who was imprisoned for terrorism in Peru (odd that he’s now VP of a country)
  • We hurried through a division vs. division soccer game, replete with team jerseys and what seemed like professional soccer boots
  • We went inside a carpentry where some inmates were carving out Victorian-style cabinets and chairs to sell on the outside
  • We walked past some big fellas pumping iron in one of the gyms (10 bolivianos for the monthly membership is tough to beat)
  • We were laughed at by one group of ‘coked-out’ guys, one who asked Lauren, ‘cuánto dinero’ (how much money?)
  • We were permitted into the sauna in one division by a tall menacing Dominican guy (probably a softy on the inside) and were surprised that it looked like the Hilton
  • We had a door slammed on us by a group of inmates still celebrating from the night before

One of the more interesting encounters was a younger inmate who followed us around for the first 10 minutes and then confronted us with portraits he drew. They were pretty good for ‘on-the-run’ drawings and we bought them without question as important keepsakes. I remember while Lauren was looking through her purse for the 10 Bolivianos to pay him, our guide looked extremely nervous and then said, ‘I don’t want you to buy anything else.’ This clearly wasn’t the place for counting money in public.

There was a new Russian inmate who couldn’t speak English or Spanish. Our guide explained that he was in real trouble. Without the ability to communicate, he’d find it very difficult to earn money or cooperate with the division. We suggested he could make money as a tour guide for Russian tourists, but our guide said he’d never seen any Russians on any of the prison tours (maybe they know better).

Moving through and excusing ourselves constantly, it felt like an entire day passed. I guess time doesn’t fly when you’re constantly on edge about your safety. After what seemed like an eternity (albeit a thrilling eternity), we were ushered into another small room; again, the door closed quickly behind us. We all sat around a small table: the guide, the bodyguard and the two of us. Our guide apologised in advance for what he was about to ask and he suggested we wouldn’t like it. That got me a little worried again.

The Proposition

Our guide explained that he’d spent most of his life in jail; he even spent time in a prison in New York State. I nervously asked why, and he said it was all drug related. He again mentioned that he had an uncomfortable question, and explained that the president of the prison said all guides must ask this. Then, with his head bowed and eyes diverted, he asked,

‘Would you like to buy the very best cocaine in Bolivia’. I chuckled with relief and said, ‘No, thanks, I mean, Gracias, but… no’. He looked very relieved.

I could see deep regret in our guide. Regret that he’d lived his life that way (dealing drugs) and relief that his current predicament didn’t have to create more victims. He spoke about his family and his plans to take them to Spain when he got out in less than 12 months. We told him our plans to travel to India, and suddenly his eyes lit up. He told us that he always dreamed of visiting two countries: India and Mongolia. He lit up even further when we told him of Lauren's plan to trek across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert after spending a few months in India.

This is the very definition of living vicariously, because unlike most, he knew India and Mongolia would only ever be in his dreams. I suggested it could be otherwise, but he was happy to live in our shoes for this moment. And we were happy we could share our travel aspirations so intimately.

The Wrap-Up

The four of us glanced at each other for one last time and without a word, we all acknowledged the tour had come to an end. That meant it was time for the obligatory tip.

As we offered the bodyguard the first tip, our guide stopped us in our tracks and the bodyguard raised his hands, as if to say, ‘I’m not touching that money’. The guide quickly followed with, ‘Sorry, but we can’t accept any tips personally, only as a division.’ He explained it had to be transparent; nothing under the table. So we handed a relatively large tip directly to the guide and he made sure to keep his hands high above the table as a sign of transparency to us and the bodyguard.

As we approached the main gate from the inside, the guide ran up the stairs to bring the head of the division down. The division leader had a strong business-like demeanor. He looked me straight in the eyes and shook my hand with an earnest look of gratitude. The guide told me to tell him exactly how much we’d given as a tip, again for transparency. I said the number in English and repeated it in Spanish. And with that, we were whisked out, past the guards, and back into (what we like to call) freedom.

Looking Back

We walked about 10 metres before quickly glancing at each other with cheeky smiles. We walked another 15 metres before we looked back at the prison gate to etch that last moment in memory. And as we rounded the corner, we stopped for a quick high 5.

Our friends have asked what we thought about the ethics of it all. Not the prison system itself, but the ethics of us propagating corruption, financially supporting criminals and essentially breaking the law. I’m still unsure.

The selfish answer is that it was a great learning experience and an amazing travel experience. I hope that I can put it all to positive use at some point, but clearly can’t promise that. I certainly don’t want to trivialise crime, criminals and prison, but I saw something quite special in San Pedro. Something ultimately positive. So really, I don’t feel too bad about it. I just can’t explain exactly why.