Overcrowding is typical in Costa Rica's jails. In the case of San Sebastian, in San José, there are 1.140 prisoners in the space designed for 600. Photo: Marcelo Bertozzi, La Nacion
Overcrowding is typical in Costa Rica’s jails. In the case of San Sebastian, in San José, there are 1.140 prisoners in the space designed for 600. Photo: Marcelo Bertozzi, La Nacion

QCOSTARICA — Sleeping on the floor, having to buy your own mat, braving the cold of night and overcrowding is daily life in Costa Rica’s jails, a fact that is now being seen first hand and reported on by the same judges responsible for ordering the incarceration of the many in the jail system.

“The defendant says he braves the cold of night, therefore, gets a cold continuously. He paid ¢4.000 colones for mat and sleeps on the floor, while suffering because his two children depend on him financially,” are the notes of a Puriscal criminal court judge of his visit of a suspect he ordered to preventive detention (remand) in the San Sebastian jail in San José. The visit was on September 26.

The judge, whose identity is being withheld, noted “overcrowding is evident; the heat, unbearable.” In this case, the judge noted that the prisoner is being held in a cell that is meant house 30, but in reality holds 52.

The visit by the judge to the jail is due to a regulation of last July 28 by the Corte Plena (Superior Court), requiring criminal court judges who hand down preventive detention sentences, to visit every three months, those they incarcerated. At the end of September there were 2.894 such prisoners in the system.

The requirement of the Superior Court is for criminal court judges to check whether the conditions of detention respect fundamental rights and provide a quarterly report.

But not all is going as the Superior Court had expected.

Up to October, only seven judges have obeyed the provision. The seven work in the criminal courts of Puriscal, Liberia, Buenos Aires, the Juzgado Penal Juvenil de Cañas and the Tribunales de Juicio de San Carlos and Puntarenas. The visits were to the  San Sebastián, La Marina, Zurquí, Liberia, El Roble and Pérez Zeledón jails, between September and October.

The Criminal Court of San Carlos submitted to the Superior Court its concerns of inmates very time a judge made a visit and their condition does not improve.

But the Superior Court said that visit requirement will be maintained.

Judge Patricia Solano of the Tribunal de Juicio de San José, one of several judges interviewed by La Nacion, argues that close contact with a suspect in prison threatens the purity of the process. She asks rhetorically, what would a victim of rape feel to learn that the judge is direct contact with the suspect?

For her, the visits can lead to either sympathy or antipathy, which affects objectivity. She added that the judges cannot order Adaptación Social (state prison management) how to manage a prison.

Juan Carlos Pérez, coordinator of the San José court office, noted that prisoner rights groups and the Defensoría de los Habitantes (Ombudsman) review prison conditions.

The judges, with the support of the Asociación Costarricense de la Judicatura (Acojud) – Costa Rican Association of the Judiciary, has asked the Superior Court to suspend the visits.

In Costa Rica, preventive detention is used by the courts to order a person to “preventive” imprisonment of 12 months if the person is considered a “flight risk”, but if the case is declared “complex”, it can be increased to up to three years and a half of imprisonment without conviction, or even more in some cases, while the case is under investigation. In preventive detnetion, there are no charges filed and no trial date set.

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