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Strikes Sweep Bolivian Prisons as Promise of Freedom Fades

In celebration of Jubilee 2000, Roman Catholic Pope John Paul asked the nations of the world to pardon crimes and free prisoners where possible. Bolivia responded with Law 2098 "to celebrate the coming of the third millennium by granting benefits of special character to those imprisoned."

In June of 1999 Bolivia's 16 prisons held 8,057 prisoners in facilities designed to hold only 4,959. Cells are sold to incoming prisoners by previous occupants or other prisoners at prices between $2 and $5,000 depending on the location. In the poorest areas, cells are tiny even by U.S. standards: 3 by 4 by 6 feet and without ventilation, lighting or beds. The crowding in some prisons is so bad that prisoners are obliged to sleep sitting up.

It was expected the law would greatly reduce this overcrowding: preliminary counts estimated the number of prisoners to benefit would be 3,369. These, however, represent only about 40 percent of Bolivian prisoners, most of who are awaiting trial or sentencing and hence automatically ineligible. Sentenced prisoners to whom the amnesty applied expected to be freed or have their sentences reduced by the end of the Jubilee Year.

The Bolivian legislature, however, made it very clear that no blanket amnesty was to be granted and proceded to create categories of exclusions. As this became evident a wave of strikes by prisoners and picket lines by their families swept the prisons.

Fifty-six percent of Bolivia's prisoners are there on drug related charges. The news that drug convictions were among the excluded categories set off even more widespread hunger strikes and picket lines, especially in eastern Bolivia where most prisoners convicted of drug related crimes were held. By November, 2000, nearly 3,000 were on strike demanding amnesty. Even those not in excluded categories feared they would not be amnestied if the law were not implemented during the Jubilee Year.

In early November, three women prisoners at the San Sebastian prison had themselves tied to slabs of wood with cord and sheets The slabs were then raised to highest point at the prison so that the crucified women were visible both to the public and to the press, which had been presenting the strikes in an unfavorable light.

The women suffered for days in the blazing sun. Their demand, like that of the others, was for the publication of the lists of names of those who would benefit from the amnesty. Other prisoners sealed themselves off from the press and warned that the consequences of the strikes would fall squarely on the Banzer government, which bore the entire responsibility for them.

With tears streaming down their faces, four women had their lips sewn together saying they could bear that pain and much more to obtain amnesty by December. Because the protests were otherwise peaceful though, prison authorities did nothing to prevent them nor did they try to force hunger-striking prisoners to eat.

When all was said and done, the legislature approved 2,390 men and 456 women. These prisoners must still apply to receive amnesty. The Cochabamba newspaper, Los Tiempos, aptly summed up the situation: "...[A]n Amnesty Law as a gesture of reconciliation and pardon to celebrate Jubilee 2000 awakened much hope among prisoners.

"However, the constant postponement of its approval and the objections raised with respect to who should benefit have discouraged prisoners and many, still skeptical, do not believe it will ever become a reality." Very likely they are correct. Because prisoners know this, the strikes go on.

Sources: Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, Bolivia; El Diario, La Paz, Bolivia; 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. Department of State, February 2000.

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