San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s Prisons Spill Over

The prison system is under growing strain due a surge in the number of people serving time.

Though the country has seen a steady rise in the prison population for several years now; last year alone witnessed a 12.7 percent jump, an increase that could climb to 18 percent in 2010.

With an unprecedented crackdown on crime by the Chinchilla administration underway, piggybacking on a spike in the number of drug-related crimes, the country’s prisons are already are crowded.

“Looking at this situation historically, we are in a crisis,” said Justice Minister Hernando París, who came into office in August of last year. “Each year, the prison population is increasing with no signs of slowing down. We need an immediate investment to prevent a more serious situation.”

The Ombudswoman’s Office (Defensoría de los Habitantes) released numbers on Wednesday that underscore the extent of the problem. As of December 2009, there were 109.8 prisoners for every 100 spaces. The latest statistics show that 9,304 people are serving sentences in the country, in a system with a capacity for 8,470.

“An overcrowded prison is characterized by unhygienic and restricted accommodations, lack of privacy for basic activities such as use of sanitary facilities, reduced activities outside the cell … overburdened health services (and) an environment of increased tension and violence between prisoners and guards,” reads the Ombudswoman’s report.

“For the office of the Ombudswoman, it is important that the Costa Rican government pay special attention to the current situation. … Failure to take appropriate measures will lead to an increase in the density of the prison population and a situation of critical overcrowding.”


Living Without Room


Lorato Ngcongca has felt the weight of the overcrowding from her bunkroom in San José’s Buen Pastor women’s prison. Though reports show that Buen Pastor is one of the  few prisons that is under capacity, she said there have been days when the prison has run out of food, week-long periods when inmates can’t see a doctor due to a shortage of guards and instances of near-injuries due to crumbling infrastructure.

“This is a prison where people come in and they leave worse off,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a rehabilitation center, but people just keep coming back.”

The recidivism rate is 17 percent in prisons nationwide, according to an unofficial study cited by París.

Part of the problem is that there are no programs to connect women with jobs when they are released, Ngcongca said. “Women don’t have any hope of finding a job when they are out. Who’s going to hire them?” And what is the point of seeking out opportunities for self-improvement (while in prison), if there is no hope on the other side?

Ngcongca, a South African who landed in Buen Pastor after she was caught trafficking drugs, said women don’t leave their lives behind when they come to prison. Drug dealing and theft is prevalent within the walls of Buen Pastor. And guards are known to contribute to it.

On the 24th and 31st of December last year, painkillers and sleeping pills arrived in unprecedented numbers, Ngcongca said. “The guards handed them out and told us to celebrate,” she said.

In addition, she said guards turn their backs on theft. She has had items taken from her personal belongings and when she tries to report the theft, she’s met with indifference.

Another issue that bothers Ngcongca is how guards coordinate conjugal visits between strangers. Women can write away for a boyfriend and are rewarded with a four-hour, closed-door session with a man from another prison.

And when a prisoner’s sentence ends, she said, women return to their old undesirable practices.

“If these women don’t have options when they return to society, if they can’t find an alternative to what they were doing, they will go back to their same home and same lifestyle,” París said.

Buen Pastor Warden María de los Angeles Chaves notes that women are often at greater risk than men for returning to bad habits. Women don’t have the same job opportunities as men, who can work in construction, on farms or in other types of manual labor when they are released. The typical low-skill job for women is cleaning homes, but what  employer is going to trust a former prisoner in their house? Chaves asked.

“I have women who call me and they say they are actually trying to return to Buen  Pastor,” she said. “It’s not easy for the women to find work or food for their kids.” And maybe the workplace isn’t the best place for them, Chaves added. Many of these women have children who suffer when their mother is away.

Maybe the best thing, Chaves says, is to try to find a way to sustain them at home.


The Cure?


Prison crowding is heightened by President Laura Chinchilla’s citizen’s security initiative. The plan calls for doubling the police force, introducing two new courts to quickly try criminals caught in the act, and streamlining the crime response to increase its effectiveness.

But Chinchilla hasn’t neglected the prison system.

According to París, she’s the only president in his memory who has come to office after having campaigned for prison improvements.

“Logically, this issue doesn’t get the attention of many politicians,” said Chaves during a joint interview with París with The Tico Times. “It isn’t a winning issue because it requires a great deal of investment with little return.”

Nevertheless, Chinchilla’s government plans to build new prisons in Limón, Puntarenas, Liberia, San Rafael de Alajuela, San Carlos and Pérez Zeledón. Together, the six new prisons will have room for an additional 600-700 inmates. Plans to renovate existing prisons should create 1,300 more spaces.

The Chinchilla administration recognizes that responsibility for crime control lies largely in the hands of prevention agencies.

For that reason, she is taking an inter-institutional approach that includes cultural and sports activities, drug rehabilitation programs, and scholarships designed to keep adolescents in school, París said.

“The idea is that if young people find alternatives to dealing drugs through the arts or in sports, there will be fewer problems,”he said. “We need to work hard in the area of prevention so that the prison population doesn’t continue to increase.”

Despite Chinchilla’s support, París is well aware that he is working with limited resources.

“We understand that the country is facing a difficult fiscal situation and that we will not get all the resources necessary to resolve the problem,” he said. “The idea is to address the problems of an increased population and to improve prison conditions as much as we can with our limited resources.”

Chaves stressed that people need to start thinking of the country’s prisons as part of the community rather than a place of no-return. “The prison is part of society and we need to reintegrate it,” she said.

Ngcongca is advocating for more classes and a transition program for prisoners, “These are people and they are the future of Costa Rica. They can come out of here as better people.”

Note: Lorato Ngcongca’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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