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High Court Rules on Prison Concession

October 1, 2004

THE Constitutional Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala IV) on Tuesday ruledthat the proposed concession to build andoperate a maximum-security prison inPococí, in the eastern province of Limón,would not violate the Constitution as longas the government remains in charge ofsecurity and rehabilitation of inmates.Five of the seven justices of the SalaIV rejected an unconstitutionality actionfiled by the Ombudsman’s Office 23months ago questioning the proposed1,200-inmate penitentiary, the daily LaNación reported. Two justices opined theproject is unconstitutional.The Ombudsman’s Office and theNational Association of Public Employees(ANEP) oppose having a private firmin charge of managing the prison.Four justices ruled the project is feasibleif the “sensitive issues” – security andrehabilitation of inmates – are handled bythe government. Another said a privatefirm can handle all prison activities.The Sala IV found no problem withallowing a private firm to build the prisonor be in charge of medical, teaching,cleaning, laundry and cooking services.The Ombudsman’s Office declared itis pleased with the ruling because thegovernment would still be in charge ofthe sensitive issues.The controversial prison project wasstalled since the allegation of unconstitutionalitywas filed on Oct. 20, 2002 (TT,Feb. 13). The administration of formerPresident Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) awarded the $72.8 million, 20-yearconcession to build the prison to MTC, aconsortium of three U.S. companies: HaleMills Construction Inc., Morris Architectsand Management Training Corporation.After President Abel Pacheco tookoffice in May 2002, newly appointedJustice Minister José Miguel Villalobospublicly spoke out against the prison, arguingthe country is unable to pay its cost.Villalobos clashed with Cabinet members,who warned annulling the contractwould damage the country’s reputationand prompt investors to think twice aboutparticipating in public works concessionsin Costa Rica.Pacheco eventually fired Villalobosfor being “too pugnacious.” Critics of thedecision said it was directly related to theprison (TT, Nov. 1, 8, 2002). The decisionfurther fueled opposition to Pococí.

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