Sitting on a thin mattress in his prison cell in late May, Abraham Jiménez pondered the days ahead.
In less than a week he was to be released from Alajuela’s La Reforma prison, northwest of San José. Although he smiled as he spoke of his pending freedom, his confidence dissipated when the conversation changed to his return to the outside world. “I’m anxious to move ahead and show everyone that a person can change,” he said.
Jiménez was first arrested at 14. He said he approached a man with a knife, stuck it to his throat and robbed him of money, a phone and an audio player, for which he was sent to a juvenile detention center.
At the age of 17, he was arrested again for breaking the window of a car stopped at a traffic light and attempting to steal the car. He received a three-year sentence and entered La Reforma at the age of 18.
But now his time behind bars was almost up. He chatted in his cell with his best friend Marinella Obando during a visit last May.
“You’re looking a little more gorda,” he told Obando, who he called Nela. “You must be eating well,” he laughed.
“He always tells me that,” Obando said. “He knew me when I was super skinny and on the streets, so now that I’ve gained some weight, he always reminds me of it.”
Jiménez and Obando were friends for 11 years. They met on a street corner as kids near San José’s Zona Roja, a city neighborhood with high rates of crime and violence. Both were victims of abusive households and had parents who were addicted to alcohol or drugs.
They grew up together on the streets, sleeping in boxes or on sidewalks and spending the day begging pedestrians and drivers at stoplights for money to buy clothing, blankets and food. According to Jiménez, they were part of a larger gang of homeless kids in the Zona nicknamed the “grasshoppers” and “Teletubbies.”
“We were all a family,” Jiménez said in May. “We will always be in our hearts. A family from the streets, sure, but we were all the family we had. None of us were blood-related but we all looked out for each other like a family.”
He told his friend that he was excited to spend his first nights of freedom with her and an acquaintance, Jonathan Mesen, at their home in Alajuela. However, when asked what he planned to do after his release, his demeanor tensed, his shoulders dropped, and his gaze drifted up and away. It seemed he could envision himself living a better life, a drug-free life that included a job, a bed, and a roof over his head. But he didn’t seem to know how to get there.
“I want to study. I want to learn a trade. I want to have a profession in the future,” he said. “I want to feel good about myself and help people. I will reform myself.
Minutes later, his words were less optimistic. He sounded scared.
“There comes a moment when one feels desperate and thinks, ‘What am I going to do with my life? Am I going to continue doing the same things?’”
Eight days later, after a four-day prison-guard strike delayed his exit, Jiménez’s handcuffs were unlocked and he returned to a world he’d been caged from for more than three years.
At midnight on June 4, Jiménez walked out of La Reforma. Outside waiting were Obando and Gail Nystrom, a social worker who’d provided him living quarters and guidance at her facility for homeless youth, known as the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation, in Ciudad Colón, southwest of San José.
“He was a little dazed at first but he was talking and happy when he got in the car with us,” Nystrom said. “He said he was ready to start working and I told him that he’d better get some sleep because he’d be working later that day.”
Hours later, Nystrom took Jiménez to La Carpio, one of San José’s most impoverished neighborhoods, to help her at the foundation. He painted buildings, sweating in the sun, which he’d seen very little of behind prison walls.
The outdoor work reddened Jiménez’s pale skin and accentuated deep wrinkles on his brow. He wasn’t making much money but he was working, he was free, and was searching for contentment in his new routine. He spoke to a group of teenagers in La Carpio about the dangers of drugs and the streets. He began dating a girl in his neighborhood. He celebrated his 22nd birthday.
Old Habits Die Hard
Despite the progress, Jiménez began to exhibit some of the characteristics that troubled him in the past, as well as some of the coarse prickliness he’d acquired in La Reforma. The urge to use drugs returned and he began spending more time on the streets. He was angry.
“He wasn’t the same guy after getting out of prison than he was before he went in,” Obando said. “He was angry with the people that killed his mother. He was angry with the people that killed his sister. He seemed to be proud of the fact that he was an ex-prisoner in La Reforma. He thought it made him tougher, more of a gangster.”
On June 24, Jiménez left Obando’s home in Alajuela. He said that he didn’t like the rules of the household, which Nystrom supervised. Friends at the house didn’t hear from him for two days.
“He told me that he wasn’t planning on coming back,” Mesen said. “I knew he wanted to get out of the house, so I told him good luck and to take care of himself.” It was the last time they heard from him.
Later that night, Jiménez was stabbed to death in San José near where he’d spent his childhood sleeping on street corners and begging for food. He was 22 and had been out of prison 22 days. No one has been arrested yet for the crime.
Police identified him by the tattoo of his mother’s name on his arm. Dunia, his mother, was murdered in 2008 while Jiménez was in prison. He attended her funeral in handcuffs and monitored by armed guards. His sister Karol was murdered in 2006.
A Street Life
In 2002, Jiménez was profiled by The Tico Times in a story about Nystrom’s program to provide shelter and assistance to homeless youth. In a story titled “Street Kids Finally Find a Home with Balance,” Jiménez, who was 13 at the time, said he didn’t know how to read before meeting Nystrom at age 10 (TT, Nov. 22, 2002).
His father was an alcoholic and, according to Jiménez, hit him and his mother. His mother sold drugs and sent him into the streets to sell them for her.
At age 7, feeling like a “prisoner in his own home,” Jiménez, a skinny boy with curly brown locks, left home. At 8, he began smoking cigarettes. By age 10 he was smoking marijuana and crack, and ingesting any other drugs he could find. In the pictures taken of him as a boy, he is often seen in baggy clothes with a cigarette burning in his small hands, smiling and posing for the camera.
At 10, he met Nystrom, a social worker from the U.S. who has dedicated much of her life to providing support and shelter for San José’s homeless youth. Nystrom, who Jiménez said he grew to “love like a mom,” was the first adult that gave him direction and discipline.
Jiménez and Nystrom both recalled the first meeting. When Jiménez was brought to Nystrom’s youth center, he entered the room cautiously and approached her. After holding eye contact for several intimate moments, Nystrom said, “Go wash your hands before we play.”
Jiménez often remembered the encounter with a grin.
“It was a very powerful first impression for both us,” Nystrom said. “We looked at each other for a long time and he wanted to play with some blocks that I had laid out. I said ‘Go wash your hands’ and he went and did it. When he came back, we played with the blocks for several hours. He always remembered that as the first time anyone ever put a limit on him.”
Unaccustomed to discipline and structure, Jiménez’s time under Nystrom’s care was characterized by months of progress and growth, as well as setbacks and weeks of disappearances when he returned to the streets to use drugs.
Unreformed By La Reforma
The failures of Costa Rica’s correctional system have been brought to light by recent events, with La Reforma serving as a stark example of the system’s disorganization, corruption and abuse (TT, May 13, May 22, July 1).
During his interview with the The Tico Times in May, Jiménez said that he was able to both smoke and sell marijuana while in La Reforma. He said he smoked marijuana at night to help him sleep and often sold small quantities to other inmates. While meeting with The Tico Times, he pulled out a bag of marijuana wrapped in paper and sold a small amount to a fellow inmate for ₡1,000 ($2).
“I think he left La Reforma worse than when he went in,” Obando said after Jiménez’s July 2 funeral. “He carried himself differently and seemed to think ‘I’m Abraham. I was in La Reforma. I’m not afraid of anybody.’ It didn’t seem like he’d been reformed at all.”
Despite his optimism about the things he would accomplish upon his release, Jiménez also alluded to the stigma he would carry as an ex-convict from La Reforma.
“The hardest part about being back on the streets is that I know people will look at me with fear because they will think I am a monster because I was in La Reforma,” he said during the May interview in his cell. “Everyone thinks ‘you must be careful with him because he was in La Reforma.’ La Reforma is known for being the most dangerous prison in the country.”
Another concern for Jiménez’s reentrance into society was the lack of preparation offered by the prison. According to Jiménez, there was no guidance or resources provided for prisoners prior to exit.
“Basically prisoners just walk out of the gates at midnight into a world they haven’t seen in years and are expected to find a way to survive,” Nystrom said. “[Jiménez] walked out of the gates when he left and they closed the door behind him. If we hadn’t been there to pick him up, he’d be in Alajuela with nowhere to go, no money and no help with getting him on his feet.”
According to Mesen, who also served time in La Reforma, prison recidivism at La Reforma was common, if not expected.
“Guys that had been in La Reforma for 12 or 13 years would leave the prison and be all excited about getting out,” Mesen said. “One month later, they’d be right back in. There’s no help at all. No one prepares you for life after prison, helps you get a job or gives you advice. If you grew up on the streets and you have nowhere to go, most likely the first place you’ll go is right back to the streets, doing the same thing you did before you went in.”
A Family Mourns
On a drizzly Friday afternoon in the San José district of Alajuelita, Jiménez’s family and friends gathered in a small building operated by the Catholic Church that is used for wake, vigils and other ceremonies.
In the back of the orange building surrounded by black iron fence, Jiménez’s body rested in the center of a small room with a pale tile floor. Jiménez’s slim coffin was placed on a small wooden table beneath a large crucifix.
The top half of the casket provided a small hatch that opened to reveal Jiménez’s face. He wore a green plaid shirt and a white veil wrapped around his head.
Jiménez was buried July 2 at the Alajuelita cemetery. After a Catholic mass, Jiménez’s gray coffin was placed in the back of a black hearse that slowly rolled east, down a long hill to the cemetery. In the hot morning sun, family and friends walked behind the vehicle underneath mismatched umbrellas.
Armed guards ushered in Jiménez’s brother Carlos, who is serving a prison sentence in Puntarenas. Wearing handcuffs, Carlos hugged his family and said goodbye to his brother.
After a few minutes, a guard tapped his watch to signal the end of the visit. Carlos was escorted out.
“That is the exact same way [Abraham] came to his mother’s funeral,” Nystrom said. “Armed guards allowed him to view his mother for about 30 seconds before taking him away.”
She then reflected on Jiménez’s short life. “He was a kid that didn’t have much of a chance,” Nystrom said. “Kids that are raised on the streets without parents, without guidance, without love don’t usually last long. It’s a sad reality. We considered it a victory that a few weeks ago we were able to celebrate his 22nd birthday and didn’t have to do so in handcuffs.”
Jiménez was buried alongside his sister.
“I always remember him for how good he made me feel and how much fun it was to be around him,” Obando said after the funeral.
“I know that when he got out of prison, he wanted to make something of himself, he wanted to be a better person. He just didn’t know how,” she sad. “I know he wanted to do well and see me do well. Now, I’ll have to do it for the both of us.”