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Opinion: Behind bars in Bolivia


Cite as: December 2015 89 (12) LIJ, p.25

Visiting San Pedro prison was an eye-opener for Melbourne lawyer Tahlia Ferrari.

The mudbrick building is San Pedro prison in Sacaba, on the outskirts of Cochabamba.

Behind Bars

While working as associate to his Honour Judge Tinney at the County Court of Victoria, I decided to move with my family to Bolivia, where my husband was born. Our move was originally a one-year assignment, however this evolved into three. Shortly after our arrival, I was unexpectedly offered the position as professor of law at Universidad Privada Boliviana (UPB).

Recently, I was privileged to visit San Pedro prison in Sacaba with the head of the UPB law faculty Laura Garcia. We met with an inmate charged with murder. In preparation for the visit we were warned to remove all personal jewellery, bring formal identification and no more than 200 Bolivianos ($40) with us.

San Pedro prison has no high tech security or barbed wire fencing. It’s a small mud brick building, which looks like a house from the outside. However, it houses 197 male inmates, 34 female inmates and four babies. There’s just one small door and sign signifying the entrance.

On entering the prison we were greeted by several police officers, who we surrendered our phones and identification to. Our information was recorded and personal items kept until we left. Our hands were stamped with the official prison stamp, indicating we were visitors. After the formalities, a police officer opened a door that led to the inmates area. As we walked through, I abruptly realised that the police officer had left us on our own. It felt overwhelming to suddenly be among hundreds of inmates and visitors in a foreign prison.

There was no protective barrier between inmates and visitors. As the inmates don’t wear uniforms, we immediately blended in with the crowd. I was very thankful for the small stamp on my hand as, apart from this, there was nothing else to distinguish us from those incarcerated. Apparently there was an armed police officer on the roof overseeing inmates and visitors. However, I couldn’t see him from my position. On entering the courtyard, a woman approached us and asked who we were visiting. She then took a microphone with a big portable speaker and announced to the entire prison who we were there to see. Several hundred people looked over at us each time she called out the inmate’s name, which she repeated over and over.

Inmates are permitted visitors every morning 9-12 and every afternoon 3-6pm except Tuesday and Thursday. On these two days inmates must work for the prison making furniture, which is sold directly to the general public. Inmates are paid 8.00 Bolivianos ($1.60) for a day’s work. On the other days, inmates are active with their own businesses; often these include making and selling items to support themselves in jail.

Inmates are required to pay an entry fee of 500 Bolivianos ($100) to the prison on arrival. The Bolivian government only partially funds the prison. Fees help pay for electricity, water and maintenance. Profits from the furniture business are also used to help cover prison running costs. In addition, inmates rely on family and friends to bring them food or they can purchase food within the prison. For example, 3.50 Bolivianos (70 cents) will purchase a soup of water, rice, vegetables and small portion of meat.

Male and female inmates are permitted to interact during the day, however they’re prohibited from touching each other. The inmate population far exceeds the number of beds available. At 8pm female inmates and babies retreat upstairs to their sleeping area. Some sleep in a small room and many others sleep outside on the floor of the verandah. The men sleep downstairs, with some space available in small rooms, while others sleep outside on the ground in the courtyard. Most inmates are asleep by 11pm and must be ready for roll call at 6.30am every day.

Bolivian law (Codigo De Procedimiento Penal 1999 (Bolivia)) allows people to be detained in prison for up to six months without being charged. However, it’s estimated that 75 per cent of inmates are held 18 to 36 months without being charged.1 Pope Francis’s visit to Bolivia in July greatly assisted this situation as many inmates received an official pardon and were released from prison.

Tahlia Ferrari is professor of law at Universidad Privada Boliviana and legal counsel at the American International School of Bolivia. 1. United States Department of State, 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Bolivia, 24 May 2012)


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