I, too, could be here: Pope’s benediction in Bolivia’s most overcrowded prison

Sucre, Bolivia (openDemocracy) – “I couldn’t leave the country without coming to see you,” Pope Francis told his audience, a crowd of inmates assembled from seven different prisons across Bolivia.

He was speaking yesterday, on a bright Friday morning in Palmasola Penitentiary, a sprawling maximum-security complex covering several blocks in the lowland city of Santa Cruz.

Prisons in Bolivia, like many across Latin America, are notorious for their levels of violence and extortion. In the case of Palmasola, years of neglect finally detonated on 23 August, 2013, when a fight broke out in Sector PC3, nicknamed Chonchocorito.

Raul Velasquez, now a taxi driver working the streets of Santa Cruz, was serving a four-year sentence at the time.

“It was a fight between a gang from Block A and a gang from Block B,” he said. “At first they just exchanged punches. Then they began to slash each other with knives and machetes. This wasn’t uncommon. But then they started to burn people, using fire extinguishers filled with gas. The fire got hold of the mattresses and started to spread, and they couldn’t stop it. It’s a prison, there’s not much water or anything that they could use to put it out. It was the fire that killed people.”

By the time the blaze was extinguished, 31 people were dead, including a one-year-old child. Another 37 were injured. Over the next few days, four more people died from their burns, bringing the total number of fatalities to 35.

The immediate trigger, Raul explained, was a battle for power. As in most Bolivian prisons, extortion is a daily fact of life inside Palmasola, and whoever controlled Chonchocorito could make thousands of dollars during their years in jail.

“Luckily I escaped the worst of it, because friends helped me pay a little extra, $300 or $400, to stay in a calmer section,” he told openDemocracy. “But if you fall in Chonchocorito they’ll point guns at you, they’ll electrocute you, they’ll torture you, they’ll call your family and say you have to pay us $500 or $800 or $1000 – the amount depends on your crime. That’s what they were fighting for, this power, the power to extort.”

In the days following the fire, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales admitted that there was “no state presence” in Bolivia’s prisons. In a TV interview a few months later, a former prison chief estimated that $30,000 changes hands every day inside Palmasola as a result of extortion.

“A time bomb owing to structural problems”

According to Hernán Cabrera, the Human Rights Ombudsman for Santa Cruz, the Bolivian authorities were alerted to the precarious situation inside Palmasola shortly before the events of 23 August.

“Three years ago we released a report which said that prisons in Santa Cruz were a time bomb,” he told OpenDemocracy. “A time bomb resulting from structural problems in the prison system.”

The biggest issue highlighted by the report was overcrowding. “The prison was built for 800 people and there are 4800 prisoners,” said Cabrera. Statistics from the Development Bank of Latin America (the CAF) show that Bolivia has the third-highest levels of prison overcrowding in Europe and the Americas, at 233%.

Such overcrowding goes hand-in-hand with “obsolete” infrastructure, Cabrera added, describing “the neglected state of basic services such as water, sewage, drainage and health.”

Exacerbating high levels of overcrowding are extreme delays in the justice system. “85% of prisoners don’t have a sentence, and they can be incarcerated without a conviction for two, three, four years,” said Cabrera.

CAF statistics show that Bolivia’s prisons contain the highest proportion of pre-trial detainees anywhere in Europe and the Americas. Pre-trial detention is designed to enable the incarceration of suspects deemed to pose a serious risk of flight, or a danger to witnesses or the wider community. But in many countries it is a product of a gridlocked justice system, combined with a disregard for those who end up in jail on minor charges, but lack the financial resources to pay the bail, bribe or barrister needed to get their case heard.

Another underlying issue mentioned in the report was the complete absence of state policy for the rehabilitation or reintegration of prisoners.

“It still doesn’t exist,” said Cabrera. “If you’re inside Palmasola, you’re free to do whatever you want and think whatever you want all day long. Then when you leave you’re given no support, leading many prisoners to reoffend.”

Failed reforms

Following the deaths of 23 August, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Bolivia to implement reforms to guarantee the lives of prisoners. The next month, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a decreegranting pardons to some convicts and pre-trial detainees incarcerated for minor offences. But despite such international concern and political statements of intent, no meaningful reform has taken place.

“They made some small cosmetic changes to the buildings and streets, and they improved security, with more cameras and stricter discipline,” said Cabrera. “But whenever the prison is thoroughly searched it turns up knives, machetes, alcohol, drugs, guns, so controls are clearly still deficient.

“All this is to say that improvements within the prison have been very, very limited, and entirely superficial.”

The Pope’s visit to Palmasola was coordinated by Padre Leonardo da Silva, who was working as a Chaplain in the prison on the day of the fire. Da Silva concurs entirely with Cabrera’s assessment of the inefficacy of government action since.

“There was a summit, there were platforms, there were government discussions, roundtable dialogues, inter-institutional collaborations – and everything remained exactly the same,” he told us.

Then, with a few months to go before the arrival of the Pope, the authorities flew into action. In May, a temporary court was installed in Palmasola. Pre-trial detainees were hurriedly brought before it to be sentenced or released. By 19 June, 542 prisoners had been processed in these trials – still a small proportion of the more than 4000 detainees languishing in Palmasola without a sentence.

While helping the prisoners prepare for the Pope’s visit, da Silva has watched these developments carefully.

“Hopefully it won’t just be a palliative to decongest the system, to prevent the Pope finding too many prisoners crowding the prison, and afterwards we return to the usual situation of extreme neglect,” he said. “But in any case the prison system isn’t just sentencing and then giving a release order. Everything must be treated as a whole. There must be policies for rehabilitation and reintegration. We must remember we are managing human lives here.”

High hopes

As Chaplain of one of the prison’s four churches, da Silva has worked closely with inmates in Palmasola for many years.

“Of course the prisoners have enormous expectations from the Pope’s visit,” he said, showing a book, titled Voces de Libertad, containing their hopes and desires, which he later presented to the Pope. “And there’s no doubt that he’s going to help illuminate the problems that exist inside the prison. This is a Pope who understands the theme very profoundly, who has a great sensitivity for the challenges facing convicts.”

Since being elected, Pope Francis has continued to visit prisons several times a year, a practice which characterised his work as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. According to Vatican officials, he still makes a phone call every other Saturday to young inmates he met in the Argentine capital.

He chose to give his first Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper in a young offenders institute in Rome. After the service, he broke Catholic taboos by washing and kissing the feet of female and Muslim prisoners. Traditionally, this act is meant to mirror the moment, contained in the Gospel of John’s account of the Last Supper, when Jesus washes his disciple’s feet – all of whom were men.

Francis explained his affinity with convicts in an interview with the Argentinean newspaper La Voz del Pueblo. “‘None of us can be sure that we would never commit a crime’,” he said. “When I visit a prison I think to myself, ‘I, too, could be here’ … They just haven’t had the opportunities I have had of not doing something stupid and ending up in prison. This makes me cry inside. It is deeply moving.”

This empathy is in marked contrast to the attitudes of the Bolivian government and many in Bolivian society, according to Human Rights Ombudsman Hernán Cabrera.

“The government isn’t interested in people who go to prison, neither is most of society,” he said. “We see prison as a dump. It’s the final dump, and we send people there to rot.  We don’t give them a second chance.”

During his speech to the assembled inmates in Palmasola, Pope Francis expressed a thorough understanding of their situation.

“There are many things against you, I know it very well,” he said. “Overcrowding, the slow pace of justice, the lack of training, therapy or policies for rehabilitation, violence, all of these require rapid and effective cooperation between institutions in order to find solutions.”

Da Silva, clearly exhausted by months of preparation for this moment, doesn’t understate the size of the challenges any such co-operation will have to overcome.

“What we want and what we need is an impartial judiciary and, to be approached as a matter of urgency, a total transformation of the penitentiary system,” he says.

Nevertheless, with Voces de Libertad under one arm, he allows himself a moment of optimism.

“I think more notice is being taken of this issue. I think society is being sensitized.

Pope Francis Image Source: DonkeyHotey, Flickr, Creative Commons

Pope Francis
Image Source: DonkeyHotey, Flickr, Creative Commons

“In Bolivia, how many prisoners do we have? 13,000, 14,000 in total? So it’s actually something very manageable. Hopefully all this work will bear fruit. Hopefully people have not only been moving themselves to act and to care as a piece of theatre for the visit of the Pope.”

This report prepared by Toby Hill for openDemocracy.