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Photographer Pascualin in his Fotografo studio, San Pedro Prison, La Paz.

San Pedro Prison in Bolivia’s capital La Paz, is well-known. It is also well-visited. It is renowned for being a society within itself.

Access to the prison – which holds 1,500 men – is generally not a problem. Persons in the media visit regularly. More astonishingly, access for tourists is common. Over three years ago, I wrote extensively about prison tourism at San Pedro. Changes in security, scrutiny and administrations sometimes close the gates temporarily for tourists, but over the years an open gate policy at San Pedro is the norm.

TThe open gate policy is for the benefit of families. Many women and children live with husbands and fathers locked up, but are free to come and go to school, work and recreate. Without the informal economy – driven by family input – that feeds and clothes the prisoners, San Pedro would grind to a halt. There is also tolerated drug use – and even rumours of manufacture – in San Pedro.

In this context, Toby Binder‘s image are slightly less remarkable. The issue of access is almost obsolete, but the breadth of his study does provide valuable information on the daily lives of prisoners and their families.

San Pedro is probably not the best example of a foreign prison to ask Americans to draw comparison to with U.S. prisons. Maybe, we should think about how the visibility of this Bolivian prison compares with U.S. prisons. But, then again the two culture and visibility are probably forcibly linked.

What I want to do most after seeing Binder’s work is fly to La Paz and interview Pascaulin, the prison portraitist (above.)

Thanks to Toby for sharing his full portfolio. Captions by Binder, edited by myself.

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Right in the city center, there is 
a 12-meters high wall surrounding one whole block. Locals and tourists can be seen on the plaza in front of the main gate which is heavily guarded by policemen. Inside, seven cell blocks with 1,300 prisoners surround a courtyard in 
the center.
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The cell is kitchen, living-room, bedroom and workstation for the whole family.
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This man runs a kiosk out of his cell. The family sleeps upstairs.
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Each of the seven blocks can fields two teams in San Pedro’s soccer tournament,. The tournament is taken very seriously and highly organized. Sometimes, skilled players are headhunted by another block, thus enabling him to live a more comfortable life.
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Andres (39), photographed here with his son Andres Junior, earns a living by making wooden toys which his wife later sells outside.
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Children play table football.
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Ramiro Quispe and his family in his 4metre square cell. Ramiro (31) was caught with 5 kilos of cocaine in El Alto, the city on the altiplano above La Paz. He serves his time in cell 39 in the “San Martin” block. While two of his children live here with him, his wife, his baby and his oldest son are in El Alto, trying to continue to run a smallholder’s business. Eva (5) spends her time in San Pedro playing. Mirabel (10), her sister, leaves the prison every morning in order to go to school – children are allowed to pass the gate from 9 am to 6 pm every day.
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Eva in the corridor in front of her father’s cell.
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Washing day next to the pool.
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There are lots of playmates for Eva and Mirabel in San Pedro. Up to 300 children live in the prison with their families. “Despite the food rations for all family members, scores of children suffer from malnutrition or neglect”, says Inge Alvensleben, a German pediatrician in San Pedro. Since drug consumption and violence among the prisoners is a daily occurrence it is especially the weak who suffer, whereas those who are better off enjoy a life with good food, expensive clothes and a sauna in their cell block.
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Prisoners working in the kitchen – there is a free lunch for every person living inside San Pedro.
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The shops are run by the prison- ers and their families. At Nicol’s shop, for instance, chicken broth is offered today.
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Kiosk selling ice cream, vegetables and medicine.
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Eva’s favorite place in San Martin is a candy store.
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Although there is lots of business inside the prison, boredom is a daily companion of the prisoners.
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In San Pedro there are restaurants, kiosks, hairdressers, shoemakers, and a photographer. Only the cells remind one of being in a prison and not in any district of La Paz.
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The gates connecting the seven blocks – named Prefectura, Palmar, Cancha, San Martin, Guanay, Alamos, and Pinos – are only closed at night. During the day, the inmates are allowed to move freely in the whole facility.

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Often it seems photographs of South American prisons are presented in North American media only to emphasise the gulf that exists between the conditions of incarceration in the two regions.

I have posted before about prison beauty pageants in Bogota, Colombia; about the rise and fall of prison tourism at San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, and I have looked twice at Gary Knight‘s photography at Polinter prison in Rio de Janeiro – latterly featuring the conspicuous acts of a celebrity evangelical minister.

(Nearly) all photo essays I see coming out of prisons in South or Central America fall into one of two categories, or both:

1) A colourful contradiction to the dour, authoritarian environments depicted in US prison photojournalism.
2) A claustrophobic assault on our emotions as witnesses to desperate overcrowding and poor hygiene. The example par excellence of this is Marco Baroncini’s series from Guatemala.

What leads me to a narrow, ‘boxed’ categorisation of such documentary series is that I am convinced photographers know either the media or their editors well enough to know what flies with Western consumers and as such deliver an expected aesthetic.

I was therefore left without anchor when cyber-friend Nick Calcott sent over this latest offering by GOOD magazine on Medellin’s prison in Colombia. The images are by the inmates themselves:

On the invitation of the Centro Colombo Americano, an English language school for Colombians in Medellín, Vance Jacobs ventured to the Bellavista Prison with an inspired assignment: to teach documentary photography to eight inmates in one week.

“One of the things that gets the inmates’ attention is responsibility, that there is a stake in what they do. In this case, their ability to work together as a team, and to pull this together in a very short amount of time would determine whether other similar projects were done not only at this prison but at other prisons in Colombia,” says Jacobs. “Once they bought into the idea that there was a lot at stake, they really applied themselves.”

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In the past, I have wondered how the camera can be used as a rehabilitative tool and it is a question that can be answered from different angles. In this case the responsibility given to the inmates is how we can derive worth. I have shown before that performance and team work in front of a camera can be good for exploring the self and ones own identity (and the results are of huge intrigue). The common denominator for any photography project is surely that it immediately relieves the boredom of incarceration.

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