San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Report confirms abuse at Costa Rica’s max security prison

Prisoners involved in a May 11 failed attempt to escape the maximum security prison La Reforma say they were subjected to physical and psychological torture at the hands of guards following the incident.

The Torture Prevention Department of the Ombudsman’s Office (TPD) is investigating. A report by the office released May 25 details the charges.

The abuses allegedly began the same day a group of seven prisoners took 15 hostages inside La Reforma, located north of San José in Alajuela. Two prisoners and a guard were killed in the attempt, which was stopped by police (TT, May 14, May 11).

During the incident, members of the Public Security Ministry’s Special Tactical Support Team engaged in a firefight with prisoners, who were battling their way toward the prison armory.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office report, once police gained control of the situation, prison guards allegedly began abusing the prisoners who participated in the escape attempt.

When interviewed separately by inspectors from the TPD, prisoners said they received constant beatings from the guards, which they said caused extreme anxiety.

“These inspections started when wives of the prisoners came into our office and denounced the abuses,” said Deputy Ombudsman Luis Fallas. “We could verify that the inmates were telling the truth. Many of them have bruises on their bodies and other physical evidence.”

Prisoners say their fears of guard abuse increased when Johel Araya, the alleged leader of the prison break, was found dead in his cell on May 22. 

Two days before his death, which is still under investigation, Araya filed a complaint with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and asked the court for protection. He claimed he was subjected to physical abuse at the hands of guards (TT, May 22).

“Torture is a universally prohibited act. It seems these prisoners could have been punished because of the escape attempt,” said Gisela de León, attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a human rights organization belonging to the Organization of American States. “Governments must investigate these serious allegations. Nothing justifies the practice of torture.”

The Ombudsman’s Office report urged prison administrators to take steps to stop any abuse going on inside La Reforma, including an immediate dispatch of doctors to the prison in order to assess any physical harm of the inmates.

Doctors arrived at La Reforma on May 26 and found evidence that physical and psychological abuse had occurred. The same day, Ministry of Justice officials swept the prison to gather evidence for an ongoing investigation.

Justice Minister Hernando Paris must now file his own report to the Ombudsman’s Office before Wednesday explaining the measures that have be taken to stop the alleged abuse. The Tico Times attempted to contact Paris, but he did not answer his phone.

“Prison guards must refrain from using physical force beyond what’s strictly required,” Fallas said. “These actions could generate both administrative and penal sanctions. People under arrest have lost the right to liberty, but it does not mean they have lost his or her dignity.”

The Ombudsman’s Office also described deplorable prison conditions as a problem that needs addressing immediately.

From 2006 to 2010, Costa Rica’s prison population increased 20 percent, exacerbating already overcrowded conditions.  

In terms of prison infrastructure, only minor repairs have been made to La Reforma in the last five years. No repairs were made from 2007 to 2008, the report said. 

“The awful conditions prisoners are forced to live under is not news to us,” said De León. “The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that poor jail conditions may be considered a demeaning and cruel treatment for prisoners.”

Costa Rica’s penitentiary system also lacks a sufficient number of guards and other personnel to effectively manage prison populations, the report said.

Currently 1,290 guards supervise 10,541 prisoners across the country, an inmate-to-staff ratio of more than eight to one. Costa Rica’s prisons were buit to hold 8,470 people (TT, June 18, 2010). In 2010, only 507 new guards where hired.  

According to De León, this is the first time the CEJIL has received complaints about prisoner mistreatment in Costa Rica. However, she explains that it doesn’t mean torture hasn’t happened before here.

“We can’t assure it does not happen often. The very nature of torture makes it hard for prisoners to speak out,” said De León.

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