After volunteering at a shanty town school in Peru for several months my boyfriend and I decided to move on to Bolivia. This time round we were looking for a volunteer experience that would be a little more challenging and also more relevant to our skill set (I have background in Marketing and a Masters in Human Rights and Conrad is a Lawyer with a Masters in Criminology).
After much internet searching we came across Sustainable Bolivia who offered a much wider range of volunteer experiences, especially if you are looking for something other than teaching English to school children. The placement which immediately appealed to us was with an organisation called Ayni Ruway who work primarily in the prisons of Cochabamba providing services to the inmates such as legal assistance, psychological assessments, skills training, computer literacy and general social welfare support.
From what little we knew of the Bolivian prison system we knew that this would be a fascinating placement but certainly full of challenges. Conrad and I are both very committed to ideas of equality and social justice and also have very strong views on the failings of the criminal justice system so we were very glad of the opportunity to work with the inmates and to try to help them, but I can imagine that this type of work may not appeal to everyone. Our placement at Ayni Ruway lasted 3 months but I would have liked to have stayed longer as it takes a month or so to get used to the system and to get to know the inmates you are working with. Overall it can be quite an intense environment so a commitment to the inmates and their needs is absolutely essential.
Many rely on the services of Ayni Ruway for all sorts of practical and emotional matters so I wouldn’t describe it as a particularly casual type of placement; we worked every day (Mon-Fri) and also two evenings in the prisons. That said, Conrad and I enjoyed our time immensely, we met some fantastic people, both inmates and staff at Ayni Ruway, and once you become used to the conditions inside the prisons they are not at all scary or intimidating places, quite the opposite actually! Specifically I worked on their small business training programme, I prepared and ran several workshops on product marketing as lots of the inmates produce handicrafts, clothes and furniture to provide an income for themselves and their families. I also helped to organise two artisan fairs to help sell their goods. All inmates need to have a source of income in order to rent or buy their cell and to buy food…unfortunately nothing is free in a Bolivian prison! Also I taught classes in basic computer skills, which was hard work but lots of fun too.
Conrad undertook a piece of criminological research for the organisation which they hope to use in the future to expand their work into the area of prevention. All in all we feel very lucky to have found Sustainable Bolivia and had the opportunity to do this kind of interesting work.