There is a prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia that is commonly referred to as a ghetto. There are walls surrounding a huge complex, and there are buildings within it, and in the center, a large open courtyard. Prison guards apply little controls over the lives of the prisoners; it is the prisoners of Palmasola who run the show. They even created an organization called the Disciplina Interna that governs their affairs; if you can even use the term govern. There are few rules, and “stay alive” is on top of that list.No food is served; lucky prisoners are permitted to receive visitors bearing gifts. Those who have no one outside usually fight, steal, beg or die. There are small grocery stores run by inmates for anyone who can pay. Most of the 3000 inmates do not live in cells, so they sleep on the streets; if they are spiritual enough, or crafty, they can go to morning prayers at the church run by clergy who are themselves prisoners and be granted permission to stay the night.
Prisoners with money on the outside can buy a private five square-foot cell, and be the envy of those who want the same. The poorest of the prisoners who cannot support their families outside have their wives and children join them on the streets, inside the walls of Palmasola. Those visitors can come, get a full body search and be granted access. They get a stamp on their arms, and only if they can produce that stamp on the way out do they get to leave.
It’s a rough, lawless place where the strong survive and the weak get lost or worse. It is a place where even though everyone is checked upon entry, the drug trade is brisk and the cocaine is allegedly the finest you can buy. In the words of someone who just visited her husband, “if you didn’t go in a drug addict, you will almost certainly leave as one – if you leave at all.”
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