San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Release of prisoners in Costa Rica angers politicians, tourism industry

A recent court ruling ordering the gradual release of nearly 400 prisoners from Gerardo Rodríguez penitentiary in Alajuela has been met with criticism from some lawmakers, officials and tourism industry leaders.

The Peace and Justice Ministry announced on April 21 that it would release 380 prisoners over the next two months, in accordance with a March ruling from Judge Mario Rodríguez. The ruling was in response to rampant overcrowding in the country’s prisons.

To qualify for release, prisoners must have been convicted of a low-level crime, like robbery, fraud, extortion or small-scale drug dealing. They must have a maximum seven-year sentence and must have good behavior reports void of any disciplinary sanctions within the past six months, according to the Justice Ministry.

This is the second time in the past year that the Justice Ministry has released prisoners or reduced sentences in an attempt to address overcrowding. The first effort, announced in November of last year, was also met with outrage from lawmakers and some government officials, and fear from some members of the public.

Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría responded to the most recent decision harshly, saying that if the Justice Ministry continues to release convicted prisoners, he would seek harsher penalties against the accused in the future and push against expedited legal proceedings.

Justice Minister Cecilia Sánchez called Chavarría’s comments “unfortunate” and “inappropriate.”

“It worries me greatly that the Chief Prosecutor would threaten to limit the application of legally established procedures unless the Ministry of Justice disobeys the order of a judge,” Sánchez said. She lamented what she called the “unfortunate interference” with the Justice Ministry’s jurisdiction and said the objectivity of the Prosecutor’s Office had been compromised because of Chavarría’s threat.

Prison System Director Reynaldo Villalobos told The Tico Times that the ministry has to comply with the judicial order.

“We’re put in charge of finding ways to best incorporate them back into society,” Villalobos said of the prisoners to be released. “They will continue to be supervised in our semi-institutional programs.”

Villalobos said prison officials had already begun taking prisoners out of Gerardo Rodríguez, which he said is 39 percent over capacity. The goal is to get overpopulation at the prison down to 20 percent.

The released prisoners will be placed in jobs or educational programs, and Villalobos said they will continue to be monitored.

See also: Prison overcrowding in Costa Rica jumps 50 percent in 10 years

Two men locked up in La Reforma prison in Alajuela during a November trip to the detention center.

Álvaro Sánchez/The Tico Times

Lawmakers from various political parties recently sent a petition to President Luis Guillermo Solís, asking him to stop the release of prisoners and saying it was insulting to victims and their families. On Friday, the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) and the Costa Rican Hotels Chamber released a joint statement, saying they “feared the uptick in insecurity and its negative impact on the country’s image.”

CANATUR President Pablo Abarca said the chambers are asking Solís to look into the legality of the judge’s ruling, adding that convicted criminals being released back onto the streets could reverse the tourism industry’s efforts to help boost Costa Rica’s economy.

“The tourism sector makes great efforts towards economic prosperity, but we fear that businesses will be affected now more than ever as we turn to the low season,” Abarca said. “We’re respectfully calling for the president to not harm the favorable momentum that the sector has had in the past year.”

Gustavo Araya, president of the Hotels Chamber, said the release of prisoners could prompt a travel warning from the U.S. Department of State, though no such warning has been issued.

“Perception is always important when it comes to security,” Araya said. “Unfortunately, there’s a perception of increased insecurity, which is further altered by this political decision.”

Representatives from both chambers said they would continue fighting to reverse the ruling.

No more prisoners will be accepted at the Gerardo Rodríguez prison during the two-month “deinstitutionalization process” in which the qualifying prisoners will be put into monitored social programs.

Costa Rica’s current system of 13 prisons has space for slightly more than 9,000 inmates yet houses more than 13,000, according to a recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

The IACHR released a report on Costa Rican prisons in March after its representatives visited San Sebastián prison in San José and La Reforma prison in Alajuela.

In its report, the IACHR recommended that the Costa Rican government strongly consider prison reforms and avoid reliance on pretrial detention as a regular practice.

Nearly one-fifth of the country’s detainee population is in pretrial detention.

Contact Michael Krumholtz at

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Ken Morris

I find it telling that the tourism industry is weighing in on this, and even talking about things like “perceived insecurity” (I gather as opposed to “real insecurity”). You know, don’t worry about what’s just or what works. If locking ’em up and keeping them locked up helps the tourism industry make a buck, by all means let’s continue doing that.

This said, there’s an obvious easy fix: Get rid of pretrial detention (otherwise known as guilty until proven innocent). Probably there are egregious instances in which this is warranted, but when some 20% of the prison population hasn’t even been convicted of a crime, yet sits in the slammer sometimes for years awaiting trial, we’ve got a major human rights abuse on our hands as well as, duh, overcrowded prisons.

Some would add getting rid of incarceration for parents in arrears on child support. Now there’s a pretty boneheaded use of prisons. How is the parent supposed to pay when in prison?

There are of course larger issues–How effective are prisons? Who should go there and for how long? What other means are available for satsifactorily both punishing wrongdoers and ensuring the public safety?– but ending pretrial detention as well as prison for nonpayment of child support would do a lot more to solve the problem than the release of a few hundred selected prisoners.

Or, we could just do what the tourism folks want done: Lock ’em up and keep them locked up. I wonder if they’d agree to an increase in the hotel tax to build more prisons? Hey, it’s worth asking them.

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Not Surprised

When the Chinese offered to spend so much money for the new National Stadium, I wondered than why the great president Oscar Arias didn’t ask for a new hospital, or prison, which in my opinion would have served the country much better. The powers that be in this country, which are not necessarily politicians, would like to keep the masses underfoot and poor, by keeping them focused on watching football and getting drunk, rather than directing them towards a better education and and having dreams and goals, other than their favorite team winning today’s game.

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I’m just wondering about the reentry programs provided by these prisons.
It’s a wild guess but I estimate that prisons have a weak -if none- reentry programs for inmates.
I don’t think it’s about building more prisons, rather, it should be about reforming people inside prison to alleviate these sort of problems since inmates nearing release in today’s society need to re-learn, or perhaps for the first time learn, how to effectively “search for a job.”
There must be some sort of sustainable program for inmates who commit ‘low-level crimes’, in order to decrease the possibilities of committing criminal activities once they are out. Without these program, jail turns out to be a provisional punishment with no respectable power.

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With respect, to allow a judge to make such a ruling that clearly puts the people of Costa Rica at even greater risk of being victims of crime in this country is an affront to every law abiding citizen and every tourist and business owner in Costa Rica.

That the government of Costa Rica would support such an outrage speaks volumes about their total disregard for the very people who trusted them enough to put them into power in the first place – clearly now something that is showing as a regrettable mistake to many.

This government appears to have NO ANSWERS and NO RESOLVE to solve any problems that really matter to Costa Rica. I give this opinion with deep regret as I very much liked President Solis and had very high hopes for him. I understand he is in a difficult position, but if he needs the support of the people to accomplish good things for us – he needs to share that vision and actions that are needed, and ask for our support to make the changes. I hope he will consider to do so.

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The IACHR said “it recommends the Costa Rican government to redirect its public policies, incorporating the exceptional use of pretrial detention as a hub of criminal policies and public safety as well as to avoid responses hardening of penal systems that impact the restriction of freedom for criminal proceedings against public safety demands.” What??? Whoever wrote that sentence in the IACHR report is a shoe-in for a high paying government job in the U.S.

I would prefer plain English, such as “Costa Rica needs to build more prisons”.

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Well, this definitely doesn’t instill any confidence in the government protecting the citizenry and tourists of the country. When I spoke to some locals during my last visit, they said they already had no confidence in the police force or court system. Seems to be the trend worldwide. The criminals have more rights than the victims.

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This scares me. Already the legal system is weak and criminals are not held accountable, which encourages crime as an occupation. I am a visitor (tourist) annually. This makes me think twice about coming back.

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