Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison: A Model for Reform?

Bolivia's San Pedro Prison isn't free of violence, but its embrace of self-governance for inmates may foster the development of cooperative and entrepreneurial skills useful for life after prison.

Prison life isn’t known for exemplifying social harmony—far from it. A life of internment seems to better fit philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s description of human existence before government, in the mythic state of nature: nasty, brutish, and short. But San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, is an anomaly—a fascinating experiment that shows how, even in prison, the creation and enforcement of property rights can reduce conflict and foster a cooperative, entrepreneurial spirit.

San Pedro Prison operates like a self-contained, self-governing city, as economist David Skarbek explains in The Independent Review. Its inmates are allowed to open restaurants, offer carpentry services, and operate commissaries that serve nonprisoner visitors and any wives or children who may live with them. They also purchase their own prison cells from each other, provide for their own medical care and often their own meals, and adjudicate their own disputes, leaving the prison’s administrators with little more to do than to keep the prisoners from escaping.

San Pedro Prison isn’t Nirvana, of course—it’s a prison that metes out harsh punishment to those who would try to break its rules, including the norms fostered by the inmates themselves. But because the inmates possess property rights, San Pedro Prison provides a stark contrast to a more famous but less harmonious example of self-governance in a prison environment: the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War. At a time when governments are saddled with escalating costs of incarceration, San Pedro Prison offers an alternative model worthy of study and—with modifications—adoption, at least on a limited test basis.

Self-Governance in San Pedro Prison, by David B. Skarbek (The Independent Review, Spring 2010)

Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime, edited by Alexander T. Tabarrok

To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice, by Bruce L. Benson

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[This post appeared first in the August 23, 2011, issue of The Lighthouse. To receive this weekly email newsletter of publication summaries and event announcements from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow and former Executive Editor for Acquisitions and Content at the Independent Institute and former Assistant Editor of The Independent Review.
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