San JosÃ© (AFP) - An effort in Costa Rica to end prison overcrowding by transferring 600 convicts to semi-open facilities has sparked heated debate in the country, with media and some judges fearing an ensuing crime wave.
The government insists the move is needed to end dire conditions in prisons causing serious human rights violations.
But some influential critics disagree.
"They are shifting the problem to citizens. There will likely be problems in the street because none of these people (prisoners) has been rehabilitated," argued a Supreme Court judge who hears criminal cases, Carlos Chinchilla.
Resistance has mounted to the move. A citizen has lodged an appeal against the transfers and several Costa Rican newspapers assert that dangerous criminals are being let loose.
Justice Minister Cecilia Sanchez denied that and said the transfers she has accelerated since being appointed in July aim to end a "serious overcrowding problem."
"The prisons have a capacity for 9,000 detainees but currently hold more than 14,000," she told AFP.
"This has prompted complaints against us in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. There have been 18 orders by national judges to close 11 of our 13 penitentiaries. Furthermore, there are Constitutional Court decisions obliging compliance," she said.
- Rampant gangs -
Costa Rica, a relatively well-off Central American nation, is far from being the worst example of prison overcrowding in Latin America.
El Salvador's penitentiaries, for example, are at 300 percent of capacity, according to the Universidad Centroamericana. Nicaragua's are at 225 percent, according to that country's Center for Human Rights. And Venezuela's are at 190 percent, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory.
Nevertheless, a Costa Rican prisons employee told AFP on condition of anonymity that the overcrowding meant gangs had effectively taken control inside.
"Torture, such as beatings and rape, have become everyday occurrences, taking place in total impunity," he said.
"Only the gang bosses and their lieutenants are able to have family visits or medical attention. The other prisoners, who they call 'dogs', are excluded."
One of the most serious problems is that official visitors such as lawyers, social workers and psychologists have almost no contact with the prisoners.
They get one five-minute session with them every six or 12 months. The sheer number of detainees precludes any real work towards rehabilitation.
- System 'collapsing' -
Sanchez complained that the court system hands custodial sentences to an average 600 people a month, often for misdemeanors.
"This saturation impedes us giving treatments to meet the theory behind the aim of prison: to rehabilitate a person who committed a crime so they can be reintegrated into society and be a good person," she said.
It also throws together petty criminals with hardened inmates sentenced for murder, drug trafficking, rape and other serious offenses, turning prison into a school for crime.
Those opposing the semi-open sentences for some prisoners are urging the government to build more penitentiaries to increase capacity.
But Sanchez said that, "at a rate of 600 entering per month, if we build 100 prisons then in a short time we will have 100 overcrowded prisons."
An expert, Daniel Gonzalez, a former judge who has become an international consultant in penal reform, said that Costa Rica's criminal justice system is in crisis because of overreliance on prison sentences.
"Everything is collapsing: the prosecutors, the courts, the penitentiary system, just to prosecute small robberies and theft that represents nearly 70 percent of cases," he said.
"It's absurd. A criminal case in the country costs between $10,000 and $11,000, according to justice ministry calculations, to prosecute, say, the theft of a can of tuna from a supermarket."
Gonzalez also noted that, while so much attention was being focused on the prisoner issue, "much of the state corruption crimes causing big damage to the country go unpunished."