In the photo, area B area of La Reforma prison in Alajuela. | Jorge Navarro, La Nacion
In the photo, area B area of La Reforma prison in Alajuela. | Jorge Navarro, La Nacion

QCOSTARICA – Costa Rica plans to construct a new US$20 million prison on the grounds of the present La Reforma Prison to help relieve its serious glut of facilities by convicted criminals. The new prison is projected to hold 1,600 convicts and to offer the same range of functions as current jails.

The announcement was made by Justice Minister Cristina Ramirez before the Judiciary’s High Level Interinstitutional Commission for Prison Facilities. “This new jail intends to provide the inmate population with integral attention and we’re thinking of a space where our personnel can work adequately,” said Minister Ramirez.

The new structure will have cells, police dormitories, reception for family and conjugal visits, a multi-use salon, kitchens, dining rooms, security posts, technical attention space and administration and parking. It is obvious that it will be a totally new prison and not simply an addition to the overpopulated La Reforma.

Even with strenuous efforts by the court and Justice Ministry, La Nacion last week did a comprehensive article on overcrowding of the 10,860 convicts in 135 holding facilities in the country showing that 78.5% of them live in critically substandard conditions.

The newspaper obtained this information by going to the constitutional court known as Sala IV, which issued a direct order to provide the data. The government says that overpopulation reaches a 51.4% level, some 4,697 convicts. The paper arrived at its figure by calculating data provided by the Justice Ministry.

There is no doubting the reluctance of the Ministry to release the figures, but overcrowding has long been realized as a problem that must be treated sooner or later. Principal among those who are aware of the situation is Criminal Judge Roy Murillo, author of the early release plan that relieved part of the pressure on the system.

He pulls no punches in his description of the problem: “Punishment has only reached a dimension of ‘neutralization’ and has converted into a mechanism for mistreatment,” he told La Nacion. In other words, the country is merely warehousing its convicts, getting them off the streets.

But this country, as the name of its once-showcase prison La Reforma, indicates, long ago set the bar high — hoping to rehabilitate its prisoners. Today though, overcrowding and overwhelming numbers make the goal unrealistic. The case load for social workers and psychologists is ridiculously high.

Minister Ramirez points out that after the Solis Administration took over in May of last year, 1,072 spaces have been cleared to combat overcrowding. Even more encouraging are the 80 spaces created at La Reforma to separate young adults from the regular prison population.

As in most countries, the criminalization of troubled young adults imprisoned on relatively minor convictions has turned jails and prisons here into “universities of crime.” Relatively innocent small time criminals are inducted into more sophisticated crimes and crowded into juxtaposition with role models of the worst type.

Currently, those young adults are crammed into the Zurqui facility in 216% occupancy — more than twice as full as it was built to hold. Plans are due to be completed next June for 15 units to house 2,200 inmates under a $50 million loan from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) with hope that construction can being late this year.

Those not permanently indoctrinated into criminal lifestyles are so embittered by mistreatment — either by fellow prisoners or guards — that their lives turn from mistaken rebellion into vengeance against the society that placed them in such conditions. The new facility is a hopeful sign, but too little so far.

Despite these improvements, Judge Murillo points out that the government building more spaces but the court just fill them again with prisoners, not even providing more custodians. After Murillo instituted relief of overcrowding, just in January and February, courts sent 890 to preventive detention and another hundred on sentences.

Granted, preventive sentences are usually on 30 to 90 days but it does not take long for the spaces to fill. And even building more prison space does not help the lack of personnel about which Minister Ramirez complains so bitterly.

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