I spent ten years traveling, visiting South American jails – a different and complex world where violence and abuse are part of everyday life. I saw inmates trying to stake out their territory just as they had outside jail. I saw them trying to preserve their dignity. Jails are a reflection of society, a mirror of a country showing both minor problems and the large-scale economic and social crisis. Inmates need to recreate their own space; it is their only means of defense.

They scarcely try to maintain normal habits in overcrowded and almost inhumane conditions. Violence and power games are direct consequences of these conditions. For example, in Brazil, I got permission to take pictures inside, but the director of the prison had to get approval from the group who “controlled” the place.

Some prisoners would defiantly display their knives, and anyone unarmed becomes a virtual slave.


In Santiago de Chile, inmates exasperated by such poor living conditions fight during their one hour outside their cells. The rules applying are the same as can be found in life outside: the person with money and power is in charge and has authority.

But life in jails is more than just power games and fighting; there is time for playing football, for talking, for joking and, for the women, there are times when they can dress up and put on make-up.

The story is not being told here to denounce the situation in jails, but to uncover the truth, to show what is similar and different in these South America countries.

I saw a total of 74 prisons for men and women, in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. I was in contact with prisoners and guards, with fear and anger, with hope and diffidence. Some inmates saw me as a distraction, others looked at me with envy, and there were some who felt nothing but contempt, convinced that I was there to take pictures of their life behind bars only so that I could sell them.

Every jail told a tale of the country on the inside and on the outside. While everything seems to reflect the violence, there is the contrast of life and violence, following one line, the line that is the history of South America.

Valerio Bispuri

Valerio Bispuri

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