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Come inside the craziest prison in the world

In the heart of Bolivia lies a prison like no other, where children roam the corridors, drugs are made and sold and an inmate council hands out corporal punishment.

Welcome to San Pedro.

Sunday Night's Denham Hitchcock went inside the prison city in the centre of La Paz with Australian author Rusty Young, the man who made this place famous.

Young's book about the prison, Marching Powder, is still a bestseller after 12 years — and the closest look anyone from the outside world has had of San Pedro.

Filmed on hidden cameras, Young returned with Sunday Night for the first time since releasing his book 12 years ago.

He is infamous to the residents of San Pedro after spending four months there — some call him a friend, many do not.

Marching Powder author Rusty Young
Marching Powder author Rusty Young

"I am a little bit nervous that someone might want to take some kind of revenge but I am also excited because its been a while since I have been inside there and it will be interesting to see how it has changed.

"If I was in there alone I would be very, very scared."

There are guards around the outside walls and at the gates but once you go inside the inmates run the prison, it is a cheap model that the Bolivian government supports.

"They found when they put these guys in prison their families on the outside were in terrible trouble — so the families were brought into the prison," Young said.

A boy plays in his 'apartment'
A boy plays in his 'apartment'

The argument is that it is safer for them to be inside the prison than on the street.

"They’re safer in here, much safer here, than on the streets, fending for themselves, So it’s a big debate, they should really have hostels but they don’t have them yet," Young said.

"The children are sometimes in actual physical danger. There are a number of cases of young girls, one girl who was six was raped and killed inside the prison when the mother was off partying.

"Only two years ago a 12 year old girl was found to be pregnant."

Street food is available for purchase
Street food is available for purchase

But these offences don’t go unpunished, rapists and child molesters are treated with a zero-tolerance policy by the inmates 'council'.

"If you have a pedophile or a rapist that comes in they drag them down to this small pool, they water-board them in front of everyone and they say, 'We know who you are — this happens again and you're done."

The death penalty here is a beating, drowning and sometimes electrocution at 'The Well'.

"They fill it with water and they just throw them in there and they beat them and drown them, electrocute them, stab them and then just kick them until they’re dead," he said.

But Young says the children have a good effect on the prisoners.

'The Well' where punishment awaits rapist and child molesters
'The Well' where punishment awaits rapist and child molesters

"I definitely think the prisoners themselves receive a big benefit from it. It has a very humanizing and pacifying effect on them, they tend not to fight as much."

Children aren’t the only unusual things you'll find in San Pedro, there is also a rampant cocaine industry, and a star-based housing scale.

If you have no money, you sleep in concrete corridors and alcoves but those who can afford it can buy two-storey apartments to live in with their families.

"There are eight different sections inside the prison and everyone has to buy their own prison cell," Young said.

"The inmates have invented a rating system so you have anything from zero stars up to five and a half stars where really rich drug traffickers and politicians live."

Amid the crime corruption, drugs and violence there is a surprising level of organization. Each section of the jail is represented by a small council to make decisions.

Prisoners must feed and house themselves within the prison and so will sell whatever product or service they can to survive, which has resulted in a thriving town-like environment complete with barbers, restaurants and tradesmen.

Prisoners earn money doing menial labour and trades
Prisoners earn money doing menial labour and trades

"The Government does provide watery soup but basically often the money goes missing, so the actual quality of the food and the amount of nutrition is so poor the inmates decide to feed themselves."

While San Pedro was build to house only 250 people it currently has a population of more than 3000. Wives and children leave during the day to work and attend school and inmates do what they can to earn a living inside until their release.

Hundreds of children live with their parents in the San Pedro Prison in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.

The Bolivian Government claims this is better for the kids. More than two thousand children live in 17 prisons across the poverty-stricken country. Over the years there have been many claims by the Government that it would phase out the practice.

There have been attacks on the children inside, even deaths. But supporters claim it is better for the children’s parents, giving them hope and a reason to work towards their freedom.

Outside, without their parents, children can be very exposed in poor communities where violence is common.

The charity, Prison Fellowship International, runs a program for children in San Pedro Prison, providing education and food.

In a film PFI made there in 2008 many of the kids in the prison spoke against the idea of them living in jail.

If you would like to contribute to Prison Fellowship International’s work with the children in San Pedro go to