This was a fascinating book, but, once more, this was a book that I would not have managed to get through in anyway other than an audiobook. Even as an audio book, I almost quit it multiple times.
It’s essentially the memoirs of Thomas McFadden, a young British drug smuggler, about his years in Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison. I say “essentially” because I’m a bit unclear on why this book isn’t listed with two authors: it’s written in the first person and there are direct descriptions of how Rusty came to the prison and recorded McFadden’s story on audio cassettes.
The hardest part of getting through this book is that there was no one in the book that I liked. There were better and worse people. And there were definitely situations that no one should have to live through, no matter how nice or not they are, but being a victim doesn’t always make a person innocent. I went into this book knowing it was about a prison and a drug smuggler, but he’s described as being very personable, and I guess he is? But it came across to me as a highly manipulative, almost psychopathic type of personability where I couldn’t actually feel a connection and, through his recounting, couldn’t feel a connection to anyone else, either. As the book described actions, reactions, and motivations, I found myself just generally disliking both Thomas (the narrator) and Rusty (the author) and most of the other people too, regardless of whether Thomas was trying to present them in a good or bad light.
Surprisingly, while the people made the book difficult to get through, the events recounted were not as difficult. I’d gone into this book prepared by Hollywood and stereotypes to hear the conditions of a third-world drug prison (ie, awful, awful, awful conditions). I was surprised that while, yes, at some points in time and in some circumstances, it did live up to those expectations, at other times and in other situations, the prison as a whole acted more like a small city-state with strict immigration laws: ie, you couldn’t leave, but it wasn’t a half-bad place to settle down, start a business, and raise a family.
The corruption described is so prevalent that the it struck me that this wasn’t a corrupt justice/prison system at all, but was something entirely different, merely masking itself to the outside eye as a justice/prison system. It seemed like more of a state-run hostage business or some other money-making scheme that I don’t quite understand, but certainly wasn’t interested in either justice, rehabilitation, or even punishment. This is not is a justice/prison system marred by corruption, because the corruption has taken over. The corruption is so prevalent that it creates it’s own structure, completely replacing the structure that might otherwise have been there.
I’ve been trying to think of a good simile and the best I can come up with is that calling this part of a justice system with some corruption would be like calling a fishing net a sailboat sail with some holes. They can’t really be compared.
To sum up, I’ll steal Kinsey’s three-word review style and say, this book was: informative, interesting, off-putting.