Chris Blattman

The privatized prison at its most extreme?

San Pedro prison, the biggest in Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, is home to about 1,500 inmates.

Once you pass the thick walls and the security gates, any resemblance to a normal jail disappears: there are children playing, market stalls, restaurants, hairdressers and even a hotel.

…The prison is divided into eight sectors and facilities range from miserable to luxurious.

There are no guards, no uniforms or metal bars on the cell windows. This relative freedom comes at a price: inmates have to pay for their cells, so most of them have to work inside the jail, selling groceries or working in the food stalls. Others work as hairdressers, laundry staff, carpenters, shoe-shine boys or TV and radio repairmen.

…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.

…Prisoners are expected to resolve their own problems through section representatives elected democratically.

A short photo essay from BBC News.

I am intrigued by the politics and “institutions”. It’s hard to imagine an elected assembly calls the shots. How do political institutions sustain themselves? How are property rights protected?

The economics would be fascinating as well. What do they pay for “imports”? Is “keeping inmates off the street” their sole export, and how is the value and price determined? What’s the unit of exchange and does someone operate monetary policy?

Possibly these answers are out there but I have not investigated. Excuse my laziness.

Either way, this sounds like a fascinating political-ethnographic dissertation waiting to be written. You would need cahones and a flexible human subjects committee.

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