10 a.m. La Paz is marked by a distinct depravity at this hour. From the surrounding mountains, one stares down into this giant clay bowl of a city; everything cooking, giving off steam. Honking horns resonate through the musty streets. Grey exhaust floods from vans and cars that hide the working class people from children that beg moneda on the corners.

Bolivian policemen in jungle green uniforms patrol the entrance of the stained white walls of San Pedro Prison. Along riot helmets and body-length black Plexiglas shields read the word, POLICIA. A guard with a gold tooth spots a six-foot tall gringo in the crowds of visiting families.

A portly, young Bolivian woman with purple sweater grabs my cuff like some overbearing hostess at Applebee’s.

You like to visit the prison? She says, pulling me towards the door.

Will I be alright? My cigarette ashes as I shake.

Oh yes, yes, it’s super safe. We’ll set you up with a prisoner guard. No problem at all. Look at all the people that come visit today, she says, as she hands me a piece of paper with a long list of names as we walk through the concrete arches.

A group of uniformed men and women stand in front of the high metal bars.

Mike, my assigned prisoner guard, steps out to greet me. He wears a dilapidated Astros cap, which he frequently removes to wipe the cold beads of sweat from his forehead. Actual guards only enter once a month to take roll or count the deaths. Otherwise, they stay outside or post up in one of the towers overlooking the prison. The sweat from my palms begins to saturate the cigarette butt that’s still hanging between my fingers. The cringing rats catch my eyes.

The Bolivian government decides not to spend the 22,000 dollars that the U.S. spends on each prisoner annually. The prisoners work, buy their own meals and other daily needs. Nothing is free. The prison is structured into five sectors divided by severity of crime and economic level. The prisoners who make enough money can purchase the best cells.

Mike leads me through the prison via walkways hanging over the yards of each sector. The smell of human excrement inundates the walls; the spiral staircases glisten. Entire families bake in the tiny cells. In the corner of my eye I see dark faces change baby diapers or scrounge up meals in grimy pots. All wives must pay ten Bolivianos a night to stay with their husbands, but the children—free of charge.

In a courtyard, a pale man smiles at me with his caverned cheeks, while his trembling finger points to a pot leaf growing in a small plot of grass next to a desiccated tree. Mike tells me about each sector’s fútbol team, and how the best players receive the best cells, food, treatment. The man’s paleness glares; children play at the man’s feet; they laugh.

Mike says he can get me anything I want. Weed, coke, dope, pills. Anything.

I ask Mike why he’s here. Political crimes, he says. He’s got a family to feed; maybe he’ll make enough money for a trial, or even get out of this place for good. Most new prisoners wait in excess of three months to stand trial.

As we walk, a man hangs tee shirts from his cell door. I cave in and buy one.

With my new tee shirt hanging over my shoulder, we continue down another dark hallway. Another pale man runs us down, showing me a grimy bracelet in his shaking hands with the words TYGER printed on it in faded yellow letters. I buy the bracelet to escape the desperation in his eyes. There are three kinds of people who inhabit San Pedro: tigers, sweating little tiger cubs, and people who feed the tigers, guys like Mike, like me, doing their best to keep the tigers satisfied, until they can escape the heavy vines of the jungle, or until they get eaten.

Mike leads me back to the tall metal bars; I walk to the front of the line of indigenous women who are waiting to be searched. I walk out, looking at the riot police, and mumble something like thank you as I walk past the final cop. Jesus Christ, for what? I stumble out onto the road, breathing the sweet, polluted air of freedom. I’m out. But everyone’s still boiling.

About the author

Robert Anthony Keiser studied poetry and fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. He's hitchhiked through the Andes, sat in a room full of cocaine-addicted…

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Issue 15 · June 2012

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