February 2012

Living in San Sebastian Jail

QHave you ever been in a Bolivian prison? 23-year-old Madeleine now knows it well after she was arrested a few years ago. I saw the prison first hand when I went to talk with her.

By: Melle Bos
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Amsterdam – Netherlands


Waiting in court
Photo: Sjur O. Knudsen NRK

For tourists and outsiders, Cochabamba seems like the ideal city, with constant great weather (Cochabamba is known as ¨The city of Eternal Spring¨) and the altitude is not too high. But beware; there is another side to Cochabamba that most tourists go by without noticing.

In the northern region of the Cochabamba Department lies Chapare, the largest coca growing province in Bolivia. Bolivia has the lowest price of cocaine in the world, about $3.5 per gram, compared to the United States with $215.5 per gram.

I have lived in Cochabamba for two months now, and when I walk the streets I notice nothing of the so-called huge cocaine market. Don´t get me wrong the Coca leaves are everywhere. People young and old chew through a few bags a week, but that is part of the culture here and completely legal. Only when you stop to look at the daily newspapers, it becomes clear how big the cocaine problem is. Almost all the front pages are filled with news of arrested cocaine dealers or traffickers. The prisons in Cochabamba are overcrowded.

One of the prisoners in ¨Carcel San Sebastian¨ is Madeleine Rodriguez (23), a Norwegian girl, arrested in May 2008 at the Cochabamba airport, just before her flight home. Madeleine was found to be in possession of eleven kilograms of cocaine and was arrested along with two other Norwegian girls, Stine Brendemo Hagen (19) and Christina Oygarden (19). Madeleine had her 2-year-old daughter, Alicia, with her at the time.

I heard that Madeleine welcomed all visitors, so I went to the prison to meet her and her two-month-old baby, Elizabeth. She agreed to an interview, so the next day I went to the prison, and we sat down at one of the tables. Accompanied by a bottle of Coca Cola I asked her some questions.

How did your arrest go?

(from the interview with Madeleine) The arrest was calm and relaxed, but I did get in a fight with the public prosecutor. I wanted to take Alicia with me, but he ordered me to send her back to Norway. She is still in Norway; she is almost six years old now. If I knew she would be gone for so long I would have never sent her to Norway.

The three of them were sentenced to 13 years and 4 months, but that was later reduced to 10 years and 4 months. After about a year, Christine fled to Norway and changed her name. Stine paid bail and also went back to Norway. Now, Madeleine is the only one left in Cochabamba prison.

How were your first days in prison?

It wasn´t too bad, the only really difficult thing was that I did not speak any Spanish. I could not have any contact with other people. Sometimes not speaking Spanish was an advantage, because when the guards gave me orders I just said I didn’t understand them, and went on with my work. It’s a weird experience when you enter the prison for the first time, especially when you´re not Bolivian. The central square is filled with shops, and there are plastic chairs and tables everywhere. If you look up, you´ll see that the sky is blocked by all the clothes hanging there to dry.

Were you faced with any problems, because you are not a Bolivian?


“The only really difficult thing was that I did not speak any Spanish. I could not have any contact with other people.”

Me, not so much, but the other inmates always tried to borrow money from Stine. After a while she told them they should come to me if they wanted money, but they never came.

The prison is filled with ¨Cholitas¨, local Bolivian women dressed in traditional clothing. Most of them live in the little towns outside Cochabamba, and work on the land. They don’t make much money. They can make more money if they go into drug trafficking, and that’s how so many of them end up in prison.

How do you spend a normal day?

Well, you have to be ready at 8:30 in the morning for cell control, but Elizabeth (2 months old) always wakes me up earlier. After that I work, I am the supervisor of ironing. Sometimes I don’t have any work and sometimes I have a lot. It depends on the day. My fiancé Brian, visits me almost every day, he brings me new clothes and stuff. In-between I buy food for me and Elizabeth, you have to buy all your food yourself, nothing is free here.

She said that a couple of times, “nothing is free here”. You have to work for everything. Madeleine had to go to her baby for a minute, and that gave me more time to have a look around. I noticed that almost all the visiting family members bring huge bags filled with food, clothing and other supplies you need to survive. The prison gives you nothing; you better work for it or hope that a friend or family member brings it to you.

Elizabeth is one of the many kids that grow up in prison. She might only spend her first few years in there but some kids spent their whole childhood living with their incarcerated mother. Sometimes there is a daycare center available for the kids, but that isn´t the case with San Sebastian. The mothers have to buy all the supplies to take care of a child themselves.

Do you ever leave the prison?

Not much, but only for the dentist or when I gave birth to Elizabeth. You have to ask a judge for permission if you want to leave. Sometimes you go with a cool guard, and they take you out for dinner, that’s really nice.

She showed me her two month old baby, Elizabeth; she was sleeping wrapped up in a bright yellow Sesame Street blanket. After that it was time for us to leave, and my view on Cochabamba changed from that point on.There are around 250 women in the prison, and around 600 men in the one across the street. My supervisor told me that almost all of them were drug related arrests. The normally invisible drug market of Cochabamba becomes suddenly very visible between the four walls of Carcel San Sebastian.

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