The San Pedro Prison located in La Paz, Bolivia, was built 140 years ago for 250 inmates. Today it houses around 2,000 inmates and is home to 200 children. The number rises to almost 400 at Christmas time.
Denis Racicot, a representative of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, reported that Bolivia is the only country where children live in jails with their parents. Ramiro Llanos, the current Director of the Prison system, insisted this is not uncommon practice in other parts of South America.
During the day, the children living in San Pedro either go to nurseries located inside or attend schools outside. There is an elementary school 50 yards away. The kids are ashamed of their residence, often making up false addresses. Furthermore, their perception of reality is significantly disparate from those of their classmates.
Life inside the San Pedro Prison is extremely unique. First and foremost, inmates must pay for their rooms. The jail is divided into eight sectors based on their relative value, ranging from the most luxurious La Posta sector to the most miserable. Inmates can rent their rooms if they are unable to afford them. There are also inmates who are homeless, forced to live in the hallways, because they cannot afford rent. This is comparable to drug warlords in Mexico, who are afforded better cell accommodations, food, and liquor catering services thanks to their political power, social position, and monetary advantages.
In order to pay for their rooms, inmates must work to earn a living. Within the jail they might work as carpenters, laundry staff, shoe-shiners, or sell food and groceries. Police do not intervene with the jail’s internal affairs. Prisoners are denied sufficient basics like soap, shampoo, and clothing. Thus, the majority of their resources are brought to them from outside family members, including their children.
The fact that children are living with their incarcerated fathers is evidence of the lack of positive alternatives for them. Some say that it has a humanizing effect on inmates, encouraging their rehabilitation and desire to reenter society successfully. However, the potential for disastrous psychological and physical effects is there. For example, in June, a 12 year-old girl was raped and impregnated. In the nearby city of Santa Cruz, a prison fire on August 23, 2013, killed 29 inmates and one 18-month old child.
Due to the outrage that these two recent events sparked, the government of Bolivia stressed it plans to shut down the prison in San Pedro. This is not the first time the government has threatened to take action. Furthermore, it is an action directed at the symptom, not the source of the problem. First, quite astoundingly, only 25% of inmates have actually been convicted. The rest are awaiting trial. This reflects the entire country’s incarceration rate: as of 2011, 80% of the 10,496 prisoners were on preventative detention. Additionally, every four of five prisoners is in for drug-related offenses.
In 2011, President Evo Morales attempted to address the issue of the stagnant and corrupt judicial system by holding a nation-wide election. Judges were chosen for the Supreme Court and three lower courts. There were 125 candidates, 52 positions, and 5.2 eligible voters. Unfortunately, a congressional assembly committee made up of the President’s supporters selected the 125 candidates. The opposition was merely able to view candidates and voice appeals.
The San Pedro Prison is essentially a “jail town.” Inmates must work to earn a living, pay for their accommodations, and are permitted to live with their sons and daughters. This poses a huge risk to the children. Nevertheless, due to the lack of institutional development in the judicial area, insufficient public resources, and extreme poverty of most prisoners, the situation looks bleak. It seems access to justice is severely limited by one’s economic power.
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Professor Justin Brooks
Director, California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101
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