Following a prison riot in Bolivia that killed more than 30 people and revelations about the jails’ mini-service economies and extortion rackets, President Evo Morales said the country’s penitentiaries have “no state presence” and vowed to reform the system.
Speaking to regional authorities, Morales admitted jails were under the control of groups of prisoners who charged other inmates when they first entered the facility, for safety once inside, and to secure their release, reported La Razon. Urgent changes were needed, he said, highlighting that 84 percent of prisoners had not even been sentenced and were awaiting trial.
“If 84 percent are in preventative detention, then where is Bolivian justice?” the president asked.
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La Razon spoke to prisoners at Palmasola jail where at least 34 people died following an attack by inmates from one block against another on August 23. These inmates told the newspaper they were charged by “power groups” to rent cells, move between cellblocks, see visitors and even attend hearings related to their cases. “Entry fees” ranged from $217 if the new inmate had been charged with minor crimes, to $2,500 if they were charged with drug trafficking, sexual abuse, or vehicle theft.
“They want to charge us even to breathe,” said one elderly inmate.
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The prisoners’ testimony to La Razon reveals how Latin American jails have their own complex economies — and just like in the real world, without money you cannot survive. A host of different “jobs” exist to serve such economies, from the “mobiles” who are paid between 30 and 70 cents to locate a particular prisoner for visitors, to those who sell food or drugs, to those who sit at the top managing the system.
In Bolivia such systems can work in the prisoners’ interests. Prison leaders known as “delegates” are elected to advocate for their fellow inmates. Money is then allocated for infrastructure improvements, health care and legal assistance. This is in contrast to Venezuela, Brazil, and Central America, where powerful prison gangs control all aspects of life on the inside.
However, it’s also clear that criminal extortion exists alongside any democratic “taxation” system, and the fact that prisoners can be forced to pay even to attend hearings or secure their release underscores the reality that Morales has now acknowledged — that the state has completely lost control of its penitentiary system, and urgent reform is needed.