Down with the prisoners in La Paz
comment Comment Written by on January 17, 2009 – 3:24 pm

Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison is back in business. In the tourist business, that is. It’s never really been out of every other sort of business. Behind the heavy concrete exterior, it operates its own real-estate trade, cocaine factory, and, allegedly, does a good line in counterfeit banknotes. It’s such practices that lead it to become subject of a cult book, a forthcoming film from Brad Pitt’s production company and, according to Lonely Planet, “the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction”.

There’s certainly no prison like it. The inmates here are expected to make a living just as they do in the outside world. The more enterprising might practice a trade or become proprietors of internal restaurants (complete with Coca Cola sponsorship), while all are expected to pay for their accommodation. Whole families live inside, with prisoners’ wives and children being able to come and go. And, even more bizarrely, every backpacker in town wants in.

Getting a tour of San Pedro Prison in central La Paz became a cult backpacker attraction a few years ago. However, safety concerns circa 2003 caused a complete crackdown and, until recently, only those willing to masquerade as a foreign prisoner’s long-lost relative could get through the iron gates.

At the end of last year, that changed. The tours are back and gaining entry is now easier than ever. I wrote about my recent visit in today’s Guardian.

Now, a typical day in San Pedro sees the place is swarming with backpackers. I joined about a tour with about eight 20-to-30-somethings: English, Irish and a couple of Scandinavians. Within a few minutes we crossed paths with another similarly sized group, one terrified member clutching his Bolivia guidebook to his chest as if it might double as a shield.

I’ve done prison tours before – most recently in French Guiana, where Papillion was once held – but these places have been long out of action. San Pedro, by contrast, is very much a working prison – a place of corruption, violence and extreme poverty.

Is prison tourism a step too far in local tourism? I’ve tried to cover the pros, the cons and the ethical dilemmas in my article to let people draw their own conclusions. There were certainly times when it felt voyeuristic and uncomfortable. But, then again, I don’t believe travel experiences always have to be sugar-coated. We should be learning about all sides of life in the places we visit.

Bolivia has lots of slightly dubious tourist attractions. Another involves going to see the mines of Potosi, which have almost medieval working conditions, child labour and appalling health-and-safety. And yet, for exactly these reasons, it can provide a quick thrill for tourists, who can spend a couple of hours ducking in and out of the claustrophobic shafts. I couldn’t bring myself to do this one.

The most important thing, however, is that all these situations are approached sensitively and with respect. The danger, when they start herding tourists in and out as they are doing (up to 50 entering a day), is that it becomes just another “must do” and there is far less personal impact.

As for visiting prisons, here’s some parting advice from Prisoners Abroad:

“We get quite a few requests from the public asking us about prison visiting, generally if they are going on business, or on holiday (including round the world trips). We don’t arrange visits ourselves but tell people to get in touch with the British Consul in the country direct. We also run a pen pal scheme for people wishing to write to a prisoner which is a vital lifeline to the outside world. There is more information on volunteering on our website.”

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