Jorge is eight months into a 14-year prison sentence for a murder he’d rather not talk about.
The large, outgoing teen – whose last name is withheld because he is a juvenile offender – was one of 30 minors being held in Costa Rica’s only youth correctional facility, the ZurquíYouthFormationCenter, during a recent Tico Times visit. He was passing his days in a jail that looks more like a school – with swing set, basketball court, classrooms and graffiti-covered bulletin boards – than a prison. In short denim jeans and a sleeveless blue T-shirt, he dropped to the floor in an empty classroom and showed off a few break-dancing steps he’d learned in one of the various classes he had participated in since arriving at the center.
Jorge is one of the few juvenile offenders in Costa Rica who is actually incarcerated. The vast majority of youths ages 12-18 who have been convicted of crimes in Costa Rica – nearly 500 – are serving their time outside the chain link fences of Zurquí, having been given alternative sentences.
Through a combination of the alternative sentencing program and a juvenile training center,many of Costa Rica’s young criminals – inside of Zurquí and out – are receiving psychological help, treatment for drug addiction, education and work training.
Antonia Valerio, 49, has three children and a light breeze of silver blowing through her black hair, which is cut short and professional.
She has been working in the juvenile justice system for 25 years, and heads up the JuvenileOpportunitiesCenter. Her dream, she said, is to see all the teens under her watch outside of jail.
“Many young people act without thinking, because of the process of development that they are in. Sometimes a young person commits one isolated crime, and it is valuable to give that young person a second chance,” Valerio explained from her small office at the Zurquí center, located north of San José in San Isidro de Heredia, just off the highway to the Caribbean coast.
Costa Rica’s 1996 Juvenile Penal Law defines 12 as the minimum age at which a person can be held accountable in a court of law. Those who are younger than 18 and given jail time spend it at Zurquí. Once they turn 18, as Jorge did last month shorthly after his interview with The Tico Times, they are transferred to one of two Young Adult Prisons. Male offenders are housed within Costa Rica’s largest prison, La Reforma, located north of San José in the province of Alajuela. Females go to the Young Adult Section of the Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, southeast of San José. According to Valerio, Zurquí has one female inmate, and seven others are at Buen Pastor.
Minors who end up incarcerated are primarily those who have been convicted of homicide, sexual offenses, drug charges, aggravated robbery or causing somebody serious injuries, Valerio explains. Ninety percent of them are also drug users, she adds.
Other youth convicts get a type of probation or alternative sentence, such as being required to stay in school, to work or to see a psychologist. All must regularly check in at the Zurquí center to receive therapy, and many receive regular visits from social workers, though the level of supervision depends on each offender’s particular case.
Three years ago, Valerio oversaw the launch of the JuvenileOpportunitiesCenter, a program run out of Zurquí aimed at better reintegrating convicted youths back into society.
“To integrate the juvenile prison population, we need the help of all organizations that work with youth,” Valerio said, adding that the program now comprises a network of 30 different organizations. “We are making an effort to unite the different non-governmental and governmental organizations.”
For example, Jorge was awaiting his test results to see if he passed sixth grade, having dropped out of school when he was “on the streets.” Like all the other inmates, he was continuing his studies in the Zurquí classrooms with materials and teachers furnished by the Public Education Ministry and the Justice Ministry.Valerio proudly pointed out that not one of the Zurquí inmates failed to pass their grade in 2005.
If Jorge had stayed at Zurquí, he could have taken part in a project scheduled for this year to start raising tilapia fish with the help of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA). But now that he is in the Young Adult Prison, he can take masonry courses provided by the National Training Institute (INA).
At Zurquí, Jorge filled the hours between his classes taking computer, art and hip-hop workshops.
“I don’t feel closed in when I’m in the workshops. I come in here, refresh my mind, and go back to my section with a different perspective,” Jorge explained. “In the art workshops, I have discovered I have a different outlook. And now I have started this hiphop workshop, and it has been going well.”
The Opportunity Center also works extensively with juvenile offenders who are outside Zurquí. These youth can enroll in a variety of INA courses, work-training programs offered by the Labor Ministry as well as art and culture programs offered through a variety of social organizations. The center also places young offenders in shelters or drug rehabilitation centers when necessary,Valerio said.
“If we truly want to affect these youths and help them get ahead, the State cannot do it all. So what the Opportunity Center does is connect all these different organizations looking for opportunities,” she added.