In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, being sent to prison for not paying alimony can be deadly, especially if the person suffers from an illness that could be complicated by the new coronavirus.
That’s because this type of prisoner does not have the same access to get out of prison process and safeguard their life.
A prisoner serving out a sentence for other than not paying alimony (pension alimentaria in Spanish) and has health risk factors, can ask prison authorities to analyze their case so that, eventually, can be let relocate to a half-way house.
If a person in preventive detention (accused of a crime but not had heir day in court) is a chronic patient, they can access the Public Defense (Defensa Pública) – legal aid – so to ask a judge for a change in the precautionary measure imposed (preventive detention) for a less burdensome one.
However, if an alimony debtor is in prison and suffers from a disease that could be complicated by the new coronavirus, he does not have the same access to get out of prison and safeguard his life.
Prison authorities cannot help them because they (alimony debtors) are not under their jurisdiction and of that of the Defensa Pública. In other words, other than for their self defence, they have no one to defend them. They are unprotected.
This situation is of particular concern because, currently there are 325 people being held in the “Apremiados” unit, as confirmed by the Ministry of Justice and Peace.
In addition, in the women’s prison, the Vilma Curling, in Desamparados, there are five women being held for not paying alimony, confirmed the Ministry.
They are bounced around
In the circular 4-2020, of April 21, of the National Institute of Criminology (INC), an entity attached to the Ministry of Justice that is in charge of granting prisoner benefits, the following is stated:
“As cases with risk factors for covid-19 are detected among people in Apremiados and in preventive detention, the prison centers should send the list of cases to Mrs. Laura Arias Guillén, coordinator of Public Defense office of sentencing, who will be in charge of directing the cases to the corresponding instances of the Judicial Power”.
It seems that prison authorities are concerned about the health of alimony debtors who are imprisoned; however, the Defensa Pública confirms the situation is not within its competence.
In a statement, the Defensa Pública said that those held for non-payment of alimony do not have legal aid from the Defensa Pública and should be referred to Defensoría de los Habitantes (Ombudsman’s Office) for the protection of their rights.
For their part, the Defensoría de los Habitantes says, “it is essential that the Costa Rican State assumes a transparent and clear position on the matter that guarantees all protected rights. (…) It is an obligation of the State to ensure that the conditions in which people remain in detention centers comply with the minimum measures that reduce the risk of contagion and, at the same time, that families who are entitled to the pension (alimony) have an alternative of social assistance that allows them survival conditions.”
In reality, unless the Ombudsman’s Office intervenes, the alimony debtor has few options.
According to a report by La Nacion asking the Judiciary on what alternatives an alimony debtor, with proven risk factors in tines of covid-19, the press office of the Judiciary responded that “according to articles 31 and 32 of the Ley de Pensiones Alimentarias (Alimony Law), alimony debtors have the possibility of asking themselves for a judge for an authorization to look for work (outside the prison) or to pay the arrears.”
If the alimony debtor requests a hearing, the same articles establish that “(the alimony debtor) must provide the corresponding evidence that will be resolved without the need for a hearing of the parties.”
That is, the applicant must demonstrate the condition of unemployment or inability to pay. And all this without the help of legal aid and while being imprisoned.
In the event that the judge agrees to the request, the alimony debtor must immediately be ordered free, or the court suspends the enforcement order issued against him, for a period of one month and, in exceptional cases, it may be extended for the same period.