Yoli has been hoping to take me to jail for a long time.
It’s not what it sounds like. This penitentiary is like a city surrounded by a giant brick wall. Prisoners literally have their own houses, stores, even restaurants. Maximum security is different. Prisoners are kept in cells … but they have the keys and can lock themselves in or out.
Totally different from what we know in the states. It would be eye-opening. I was very interested in going there. We decided to go and visit a friend named Marco who is incarcerated there.
We took two buses to get to ‘El Carcel’ (the jail) in Palma Sola. It was about 30 minutes outside the city in a somewhat rural area. When we arrived, it was the typical Bolivian scene: a long line of people waiting to get in flanked by a half dozen vendors hawking various foods and drinks to the impatient people.
The way jail works is this: It’s open to visitors two days a week. Visitors can enter the jail from around 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and they can exit from 3 to 6 p.m. We arrived around 2:40. There was one long line for women into a small door. There was a big giant door for men and trucks. There were hardly any men.
I had Jadzia in the baby carrier and knocked on the big door and got inside almost immediately. I went to the guard station for men and showed my passport and Jadzia’s. The guard approved me and logged all my info (except he wrote my name as “Joshua Michael” instead of “Joshua Renaud,” misunderstanding my passport). Then they wrote a code number on my forearm with a magic marker and stamped it.
The next step was for me to walk about a third of a mile to the next guard station where I would be checked again for contraband, etc. Since the women’s line was very long, Yoli still hadn’t made it inside the jail. The problem is I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to communicate, and I wanted to wait for Yoli anyway so we could go in together and meet Marco.
I asked the guard where I should stand to wait for her. I told him she was still outside in line. So they opened up the door and pointed me back out.
I ended up rejoining Yoli in the women’s line. The line didn’t move for almost an hour. People were very angry, pounding on the door, yelling, demanding to be let in. On the other side a welder was welding something. Other people grumbled that the guards were going to make them pay to get in since it was after 3 p.m. Some people tried to skip the line by swarming in front of the giant door. Occasionally visitors who had gotten into jail earlier would come out. They were immediately swarmed by children who wanted to be paid to wash the numbers off the visitors’ forearms. Jadzia got restless and we had to change her diaper. It was not fun.
We made it to the front of the line and finally the door opened and we got in. Yoli started to go to her line (which was very long) and I moved toward the empty men’s line. I greeted the same inspector who had checked me in the first time and reminded him he had already seen me. Then someone else said I couldn’t go in and somebody else said I wasn’t wearing pants.
It was true. I was wearing shorts. In fact, they were the blue and red plaid shorts that look somewhat goofy. A guard insisted it was against the rules for me to go into jail without wearing long pants. This seemed crazy to me, and I had not heard of it prior to our trip. A woman in the women’s line suggested I go outside and find someone who would rent me a pair of pants. Apparently this happens often. Bolivians are nothing if not entrepreneurial. Everything was happening fast and people were talking a mile a minute. The guards had the door open and were waving me out. My patience and Spanish were being tested. Frustrated (and not wanting to rent pants), I just gave the baby to Yoli and told her I would go outside and just wait for them.
So I did. I waited. And waited. And waited. Meanwhile Jadzia and Yoli had a nice visit with Marco (though they had to pay 5 Bs at the second guard station to continue going in).
I wish I could give some amazing and enlightening descriptions of what the inside of a Bolivian jail is like, but I can’t. I’ll have to enlist Yoli’s help tomorrow for that.
Instead, here are some of the things I observed: merchants selling their stuff near the jail, the never-ending parade of buses and taxis trying to pick up passengers, and the kids constantly mobbing visitors as they left the jail. The kids also tried to play games with the guards by jumping into jail just before they closed the big door when letting in a vehicle.
The scene around the jail was interesting. Tall, unkempt grass; trash everywhere; water running through the trash; kids playing barefoot in said water; and a food stand that advertised its “nerve soup” (a euphemism for a soup made of a bull’s penis).
Here are some other things that wandered past while I sat in the sand under the shade of a blue tarp:
- 3 roosters, pecking at trash
- A mare and a foal, also rooting through trash
- Two pigs
- More stray dogs than I could count
- A boy who peed against the side of the jail
- A man who did the same thing about 20 minutes later
- Another man who peed in the sand by the “nerve soup” place
All in all, it was a long afternoon. Now I’m off home to enjoy some rest.
Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Casa Hogar Nacer to visit Miguel and the kids. We hope to shoot some video there, too, which we’ll post here once we are back in the U.S.