San Pedro Prison

Prison Stories

One of the most famous prisons in the world is the inmate-run San Pedro, smack in the center of La Paz. Yep, I said “inmate-run”. Authorities guard the gates, but within the walls of the block-sized facility, the prisoners run the operations.

Years ago, tours of the prison were high up on the adventurist’s itinerary for La Paz, but the government has cracked down on them. It’s still possible to get inside, but you’ll need to make an effort and run into the right people. People like our new friend, New York Dave.

The first time we walked through Plaza Sucre, Dave pounced on us like a puma on prey. Barefoot and dressed in dirty, ripped clothing, he immediately struck up a conversation with us. Dave explained that he was a prisoner in San Pedro, but was allowed outdoors a few hours a day. Twelve years ago, he was jailed on trumped-up drug charges, but would be released in two weeks. The story sounded fishing, but his enthusiasm for his impending release was convincing, as were his answers to our “gotcha” questions.

We allowed Dave to walk us around the plaza and tell us about the prison. He clearly knew a lot about its history and the society within. San Pedro was built in 1895, with a capacity of 400 prisoners. Today, about 1500 mostly non-violent drug offenders are crammed inside, including quite a few foreigners. San Pedro is a city unto itself, with market stalls, organized elections, barbershops, restaurants, and groups of children playing. Coca-Cola has even purchased exclusive advertising rights within the walls! Families move in with their husbands and fathers, and a lively cocaine trade keeps the prison economy running smoothly — de facto legal, since policeman almost never venture inside.

Dave possibly could have gotten us into San Pedro, but neither Jürgen nor I had any desire. As compensation for his helpful history of the prison, he asked if we could buy him some coffee at the store. “That big jar should last for the rest of my two weeks!” At the checkout line, he added a bag of sugar and sardines, pushing his luck, then said goodbye.

A couple minutes later, we saw him at a different store, selling back the groceries for cash. I couldn’t have been any less shocked, and Dave didn’t even try and disguise what he was doing. Regardless of his tricks, or possibly because of them, we had a great time talking to one the more interesting characters we’ve had a chance to meet in La Paz.

In 2003, British citizen Rusty Young, a one-time inmate of San Pedro, wrote an extremely popular account of his prisoner days called Marching Powder. We haven’t read it yet, but have been told that it’s an engaging look inside one of the world’s strangest makeshift societies.

Location of the San Pedro Prison on our Bolivia Map

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Julie (aka joolieboolie)

    oh my gosh! you guys have a lot going on in the flickr/blog/twitter world! after seeing the above picture on flickr, i had to check out the link to your blog. now i want to read that book…  as usual, i love your photos and your stories. you guys are amazing adventurers! stay safe and don’t get thrown in that prision 🙂

  2. Emily

    Just stumbled across this whilst googling San Pedro. I just got back from South America about a month ago, with about two weeks in La Paz. I managed to get into San Pedro through a young woman I met whose boyfriend was in there. But I was also approached by Dave whilst in the square and he too told me he only had two weeks left on his sentence. Unfortunately I think he’s one of those poor people society has simply forgotten. He was friendly enough, but after I told him I had nothing to give him and had already been to the prison he seemed utterly disinterested in speaking to me. Apparently he’s quite well known around the area and the guards just treat him like a sort of loveable miscreant. But, the prison is well worth visiting and if you find yourself back, it’s highly recommended.  

  3. Rob

    Hey, thats the same guy we met 2 weeks ago! March 2012, still 2 weeks left in prison he told us. As soon as Dave got his hands on the bol. 70 we had to pay for entrance+registration fee he ran off. Never seen him back! 

    1. Juergen

      SUCK! If you can head back to the plaza… pretty sure he is bribing the police there so maybe go to the tourist police. They must know him there too! Would be easy to track him down!

  4. Andy

    Dave bumped into us today! Sept 2013. Same story. He has lost the beard. We told him we could give him nothing and he scooted off.  We had a good laugh as we had read your blog about a week ago!

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