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The Pope Visits Bolivia's Notorious Palmasola Prison


Pope Francis has been attracting millions on a trip through Latin America, where he has worked to connect with the poor and the dispossessed. On Thursday, he apologized for what he called the grave sins committed by the Church against indigenous people. And yesterday, he visited a prison in Bolivia - Palmasola Prison. The word notorious doesn't quite do justice to Palmasola. Gang activity and corruption are the norm. In 2013, a riot there left 31 people dead, including an 18-month-old. I spoke this week with Sarah Marsh, Reuters Latin America correspondent, who's been covering the pope's visit. She went inside the prison to find out what it's like to live there.

SARAH MARSH: When you enter the prison, it's more like entering a small town. There's a main avenue, and then on the side, you've got sort of two-story ramshackle buildings. Some of them have balconies with washing-lines out. The prisoners just move freely sort of 24 hours a day, or at least freely according to their own laws because, of course, you don't have state security guards inside. It's all run by the inmates themselves.

RATH: Wow. So how does that social structure work when the inmates are running things there?

MARSH: So the prisoners elect their own leader, and that leader runs the show, and he organizes security teams. So that's groups of prisoners who work in shifts to keep the peace. But I'm not entirely sure that that is their - well, their only function because one of the prisoners told me that, in fact, they really only protect the people who have money. People pay for everything right in the jail, so, you know, you have to pay a monthly rent for your bed and for a shower or to be allowed outside because if not, they'll sort of keep you in your cell.

RATH: And what was the pope's message there and how was it received?

MARSH: The pope said that he was also a sinner, and he urged the inmates to shun gang violence that has killed many people in Palmasola and to keep hope. Nearly 90 percent of prisoners in Bolivia haven't had a formal trial. So he told them, you know, I understand the justice system in Bolivia is a problem, but, you know, keep hope.

RATH: Just describe the scene in the prison when the pope arrived.

MARSH: So there were hundreds of prisoners sessile on chairs on the football field. Everyone was ecstatic to have the pope there. Three prisoners talked about their time in the prison and sort of complained about the conditions there - the fact that there are pregnant women in there and terminally ill and elderly people. They're sitting with a lot of children who also live in the jail with their incarcerated parents. One of the children sitting on the stage sort of went up and hugged the pope and just wouldn't let go.

RATH: Wow. On this trip to Bolivia, the pope - he's been reaching out to the poor and to indigenous people. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, he's a staunch socialist. And it seems that he's tried to downplay the church's influence in the country. Is the pope mending bridges?

MARSH: Absolutely. So this visit was called a reconciliation and renewal by local church leaders. Morales praised the pope as the first Latin American pope and someone who is really interested in social welfare. And the pope in return praised Morales's socialist reforms, the fact that he was spreading the country's wealth.

RATH: Sarah Marsh is the Latin America correspondent for Reuters, where she's been covering the pope's visit in Bolivia. Sarah, thanks very much.

MARSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.