Friday, September 01, 2006

carceral urbanism: San Pedro Prison (Bolivia)


Rafael Estefania produced this photo journal for the BBC on the notorious San Pedro Prison in Bolivia, a city within a city, where children are raised by their fathers in cells without bars, cells that still must be paid for by the inmates themselves; a prison urbanism with high end real estate where some cells can go for as high as $1,500 for a private bathroom, a kitchen, even a billiard space, and where other poor inmates are packed into tiny spaces together working for market stalls, as hairdressers, for restaurants, as tour guides. There is even a hotel for foreign visitors. "Home to about 1,500 inmates", Estefania writes, "it looks more like the streets of El Alto, Bolivia's poorest neighbourhood that sprawls on the outskirts of La Paz, than a prison."


Estafania reports: "Few of the inmates here are convicted killers - 80% of them are here for drug-related offences. Only about 25% of all prisoners are actually serving a sentence - the rest are awaiting trial." Nearly 200 children reside in the prison, the young ones attend 2 nurseries inside the prison city while the older ones go to school outside the secured walls and gates.


"Violence in San Pedro is relatively contained during the day, but things can get bad at night, when inmates steal from each other and fight with knives. The police do not go inside or interfere in any way. According to prison figures, there are about four deaths a month from both natural causes and "accidents". Prisoners are expected to resolve their own problems through section representatives elected democratically."


A few years ago, writer Rusty Young collaborated with photographer Niels Van Iperven on the book Marchng Power, which chronicled the wild culture of the prison through the true story of a British drug smuggler forced to serve his sentence in San Pedro. Their great photo journal can be viewed here.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Sam Fuller said...

Little error in there. It' Bolivia not Bolvia.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Bryan Finoki said...

thanks Sam!

2:18 PM  
Blogger matt wittman said...

nice piece, bryan. i visited san pedro in the late 90s. in a lot of ways, san pedro is much more humane than american prisons. all inmates have productive pursuits to pass the time and there was a thriving business culture inside the prison as well as with the city outside. the freedoms given to inmates in san pedro as well and the permeable boundary with the city allows inmates in san pedro to maintain much more dignity than their american counterparts.

also interesting to note that most inmates are in san pedro in the first place because of the US "war on drugs" where US laws and regulations are forced upon bolivian citizens. like in the US, drug possession is punishable by imprisonment and seizure of all your assets. The arrests are carried out by the bolivian military and police, who are trained and heavily subsidized by the US.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Bryan Finoki said...

hey matt

how cool that you got to go there. interesting to hear your take. based on my webby vantage, i wanted to say that it seemd more humane than the typical construct, but since i really have no idea what it's like, i wouldnt dare. but, i wonder, can prisons be a part of the city, not just cities within cities? can they be a part of the fabric, engage the city, serve urbanism in some way, rather than being typically omitted, removed, or blotted out of sight? a sort of carceral ambiguity, where our penal infrastructure is more embedded in the civic surroundings? prison programming that fucntions directly in the community. and the inner prison social structure, prisoners governing themselves, is intriguing.

lots to think about, a prison alternative, how to reverse the peripheral nature of the american prison system, how to abolish prisons and substantiate something more humane, more a part of society, what type of architecture or urbanism could facilitate that?

whatever, rambling, but san pedro seems like an unexpected example in many ways.

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice try but as a prisoner of san pedro back in the late 70's I can tell you first hand it sucked big time if you like why don't you go live there for a while then tell me about humane or how much better things are there jail is Jail

7:56 PM  
Blogger matt wittman said...

anonymous: the point is that san pedro in the 90s looked more humane than american prisons today. i didn't see san pedro in the 70s. there's no doubt that prison anywhere is probably unpleasant.

11:16 PM  

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