San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
San Sebastián

Judge orders closure of overcrowded San Sebastián prison

Costa Rica’s overcrowded San Sebastián prison that inmates describe as “hell on Earth” could be closing its gates for good after a San José judge ordered it shut down.

Sentencing Judge Roy Murillo made the decision in a July 20 resolution citing the prison’s horrid conditions and antiquated infrastructure, according to the Spanish-speaking daily La Nación.

The prison currently houses 1,260 inmates, only 165 of whom have been convicted of a crime, according to the Justice Ministry. The rest are being held in pretrial detention.

The prison’s stated capacity is 664 inmates.

Detainees at San Sebastián have complained to The Tico Times of inhumane conditions in overcrowded cells with minimal ventilation and so little sleeping space that some prisoners have to sleep on the floor next to urinals.

One former inmate told The Tico Times that his room in cell block B-3 had more than 50 people but only eight beds, requiring him to sleep on a piece of foam while crammed in the crawl space under a bed.

The Justice Ministry said in a news release that the 165 convicted inmates from San Sebastián will be gradually relocated to other centers around the country. Prison System Director Reynaldo Villalobos said the Justice Ministry will form a commission to decide on the transfer of each inmate over the next 18 months.

The inmates in pretrial detention will be phased out as their preventive prison sentences expire, according to the Justice Ministry.

Villalobos told The Tico Times on Monday that the criminal justice system has a measure of responsibility for the country’s overcrowded prisons. “We’re always limited in terms of the reforms we can make but we’re ready to act accordingly with whatever decision a judge makes.”

At a panel discussion last week alongside Villalobos, Murillo hinted at the legal decision by noting the unsanitary and inhumane conditions at San Sebastián. He compared the prison to a septic tank with a rat infestation, saying that rampant overcrowding has stripped the prisoners of essential human rights.

“If I had to be in that prison I would either kill myself or immediately become addicted to drugs,” he told the audience.

Murillo’s order to close San Sebastián is sure to generate controversy similar to that stirred up by recent orders from Murillo and other judges to release low-level prisoners in order to reduce overcrowding.

Recently, Villalobos and heads of the Justice Ministry were set to release more than 350 qualifying prisoners from Gerardo Rodríguez prison in Alajuela. However, on June 13, the decision was suspended after outrage from business owners, the public and officials.

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Ken Morris

The issue of the prison’s overcrowding to one side, what I don’t understand about Costa Rica’s judges, including Judge Murillo in this instance, is what empowers them to dictate the means by which a ruling must be carried out.

In this case, I have no qualms about Judge Murillo ruling that the inhumane conditions inside the prison must be rectified within a certain reasonable time frame (which he gave). But I do question his authority to rule that they must be rectified by closing the prison.

Suppose, for example, that the problems in the prison can be rectified by constructing a new building adjacent to the existing prison. Would the judge be empowered to order that the new building be built? And what if there were multiple design proposals for the new building submitted by different construction firms. Would a judge be empowered to choose the design and the firm?

Or suppose that the problems can be rectified by adding staff to the courts to speed up the processing of the prisoners (the vast majority) being held in preventative detention. Would a judge be empowered to rule that the staff be added?

Even suppose that a work-release program is under consideration by which half of the prisoners would be released to the custody of employers, leaving the remainder in prison with reasonably humanitarian conditions. Could a judge order that this program be implemented?

I just don’t understand why judges in Costa Rica dictate the means by which a ruling is carried out. I get it that they are empowered to rule about the end that must be achieved, but am disturbed by their tendency to micromanage the means.

And it’s not only Judge Murillo in this case. The tendency of judges to micromanage first came to my attention when the then new traffic law was challenged in court. Listening to the judges then left me dumbfounded. It is as if they all the sudden felt themselves qualified to weigh in on the details of traffic engineering in which they had no expertise whatsoever.

Anyway, I’m bothered by what strikes me as judicial overreach in Costa Rica. I have no problem with Judge Murillo ruling that the conditions in this prison are horrid and they must be changed fast, but I don’t agree that a judge is or ought to be empowered to dictate the means by which the horrid conditions are changed.

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