QCOSTARICA – Costa Rica has a prison overcrowding problem. And while lawmakers debate a solution, from building more prison to the current practice of releasing inmates to halfway houses, there is one prison, an old and infamous prison that could be restored and put to use. The prison island, Isla San Lucas.
The San Lucas served as a prison from 1873 to 1991 when it was closed.
Overcrowding in prisons, taking into account all the country’s prisons, is 39.08%. Currently, there are 13.227 people in the prison system.
Legislator Otto Guevara proposes to rehabilitate the prison island to house low risk inmates for short stays.
Guevara says that the 4.72 square kilometre prison enclosure can be outfitted with drinking water, sanitary facilities, bedrooms, dining room, etc, quickly and without the red tape of legislative approval.
The legislator’s proposal includes an interagency cooperation between the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), the Ministry of Justice and Peace (MJP) and the Municipality of Puntarenas.
Support for the Guevara proposal includes Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) legislator, Marvin Atencio and the President of Sala III (Supreme Court), Carlos Chinchilla.
“The government must make an investment as soon as possible and declare an emergency enabling the prison island in San Lucas. It must request immediate authorization of the Comptroller to start the remodelling,” said Guevara.
“Let’s not waste time! We do not need a law to rehabilitate the San Lucas island as a prison for those who commit misdemeanors,” Guevara wrote on his Facebook page.
Isla San Lucas
San Lucas Island (Isla San Lucas in Spanish) is located off the Pacific shore of Costa Rica in the Gulf of Nicoya, about 40 minutes in boat from the port city of Puntarenas, formerly serving as an island prison. It is now a National Park.
The island has an area of approximately 4.72 square kilometres.
From 1873 to 1991, San Lucas Island was a penal island for some of the worst criminals in Costa Rica. It is often erroneously referred to as the largest prison in Costa Rican history. It was founded by the dictator Tomás Miguel Guardia Gutiérrez. Being sent to San Lucas Island was a terrible prospect as prisoners lives were short and often spent in torture. Ironically, Guardia abolished the death penalty a year after establishing the prison.
The former buildings of the penal island are considered Cultural Heritage sites. The buildings include a historic dock that is still in use after the first dock was destroyed, a church, a medical building, temporary holding cells, a three story main office, a large concrete disc used to hold a water tank, and water pumps. In addition, there are prison cells of varying security levels depending on the prisoners’ crimes.
The prison cells contain the typical graffiti of older Latin American prisons, such as religious phrases, pornographic images, signatures, and drawings. There are also several water pumps and a cemetery under excavation on the island.
José León Sánchez, a prisoner of the island, wrote “La Isla de Hombres Solos,” translated into English as “The Island of Lonely Men,” based on his time in the prison at San Lucas Island. León claimed that he was unjustly imprisoned for a robbery that he did not commit. Other prisoners included Beltrán Cortés Carvajal, the famous killer of the doctors Carlos Manuel Echandi Lahmann and Ricardo Moreno Cañas.
In 2008, Costa Rica declared the island part of the national wildlife preserve, a ceremony which featured a speech by former prisoner León.
The island includes a wide variety of wildlife, such as howler monkeys, spiders, snakes, deer, and pheasants. There are also at least 8 species of bats on the island. The waters surrounding the island are home to hammerhead sharks, rays, and turtles.
Tourism. The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT) began planning to invest money into tourism on the island by developing commercial spaces for restaurants, beaches, and tour operators. The volunteer organization Raleigh International occasionally sends young volunteers to help rangers clear beaches to make the island more attractive for tourism.
Now it is a full-fledged tourist destination, with several companies offering charters to the island. There is great concern that the tourist activities are destroying pre-Columbian sites and the prison’s archeological significance, as well as the wildlife habitats of the area.