San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prison raids targeting prison insecurity

Raids carried out at La Reforma Prison Monday as part of a joint effort between the ministries of public security and justice turned up weapons, booze, cellphones and drugs. Public security and prison officials say strong measures and hefty injections of cash are needed to establish order in the country’s overpopulated prisons, where criminal activity doesn’t end with incarceration, but takes on a new life behind bars.

The raids, carried out Monday morning by some 300 public security officers and more than 400 prison police, led to the discovery of 181 bladed weapons hidden by prisoners, said Public Security Minister Mario Zamora at press conference Monday. On Jan. 2, some 800 inmates at Alajuela’s La Reforma Prison, northwest of San José, rioted, leaving two men dead and seven wounded. A search of just the cellblock responsible for the riot last week turned up 90 knives and other sharp weapons. The riot was the latest in a string of uprisings, escape attempts and murders that plagued the prison throughout 2011.

Along with the 181 newly discovered weapons, Monday’s raid also turned up 13 cellphones, which are sometimes used by inmates to execute scams or extortion schemes from behind bars, 59 bags of various types of drugs and 159 liters of homemade liquor. After the Jan. 2 riot, Zamora announced a new level of collaboration between public security forces and prison minders. Monday’s raids seem to be the first proof of that new cooperation. Besides detection of weapons and contraband, Zamora said the object of Monday’s raids was “to establish the internal order [of the prison] in accordance with an agreement with [prison officials].”

Establishing that internal order, Zamora added, could have effects on the non-incarcerated population, too.

“The brains of many organizations continue operating [in prisons], generating orders that later are carried out by criminal structures outside of the prison,” the minister said. 

Justice Minister Hernando París said the total number of individuals incarcerated in Costa Rica has grown almost 30 percent in the last two years. That number reached 21,345 prisoners in 2011 and is expected to grow another 18 percent in 2012. 

In June 2011, after a botched escape attempt at La Reforma resulted in the death of two inmates and one guard, París reported that Costa Rican prisons were overpopulated by 27.2 percent, or by 2,342 prisoners nationwide. 

París asked the Finance Ministry for new funds to bolster prison infrastructure and add new beds. He said La Reforma is overpopulated by 37.9 percent, the equivalent of about 780 inmates.

Other prisons were in similar shape in June 2011. San José’s San Sebastian Prison has more than 300 prisoners beyond its 642-person capacity, an overpopulation of 49.1 percent. Each of Costa Rica’s 13 prisons is overpopulated, some by as much as 55.6 percent, as in the case of the San Carlos Prison, París said.

The American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement denouncing the deaths of the inmates in last week’s riot at La Reforma and calling for a full investigation.

The commission’s statement reads, in part: “States have the fundamental obligation to assure the control and internal security of prisons and they cannot, in any way, renounce this inherent obligation. This obligatory control, on the part of authorities, of internal order in prisons is the essential condition needed to guarantee the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty.”

Zamora and París noted that in recent years that Costa Rican security forces have increased both in numbers and in their capacity to make arrests – a positive development, but one that París said has not been replicated in the prison systems.

Police are doing a better job taking criminals off the streets and sending them to prison, but the addition of new beds to prisons hasn’t kept apace, he said. There is no escaping the mathematical certainty that if police send more folks to prisons, but prisons do not add more capacity to house them, then prisons will be stretched beyond their capacity to safely house new inmates, the minister said.

París added that studies have shown prison overcrowding to be a driver of inmate-on-inmate violence and warned that as the ratio of guards to inmates tips more in the favor of the inmates, preventing criminal activity inside prison walls becomes more difficult.

The Justice Ministry is requesting some 3.8 billion ($7.48 million) from the Finance Ministry to add 512 new beds for 2012, but Finance Ministry officials rejected a similar request last year. The government has earmarked $132 million of an Inter-American Development Bank loan to add 2,700 new beds – 2,000 for men and 700 for women – to the country’s prisons between 2012 and 2014.

On Monday, Legislative Assembly President Juan Carlos Mendoza met with President Laura Chinchilla and Presidency Minister Carlos Ricardo Benavides to discuss the legislative agenda for this year’s extraordinary sessions, which will resume on Jan.16. 

Mendoza and Benavides indicated the government likely would call off the debate of some bills in order to move security, which is currently slated 18th on the agenda and which includes discussion of the development bank loan, to a priority spot atop the agenda. If that happens, Mendoza and Benavides said, lawmakers would tackle security as soon as an agreement is reached on Chinchilla’s tax reform ambitions. But a tax reform bill has been stalled for weeks in Congress.

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