Costa Rica’s Justice Ministry begins prisoner transfers to reduce San Sebastián overcrowding

October 23, 2013

Officials from the Justice Ministry’s prison system this week began enforcing a ruling by San José Judge Roy Murillo to relocate 370 inmates from San Sebastian Preventive Prison, south of the capital, to other prisons.

Murillo’s deadline for the transfer expires on Thursday. Since Monday, ministry officials have moved 92 prisoners.

Murillo ordered the transfers on Sept. 24 because San Sebastian was established to house inmates serving preventive detention while awaiting trial or sentencing. Currently, it has the country’s highest rate of overcrowding, with 1,247 prisoners – 70 percent over its official capacity.

Saying that “overcrowding is unlawful and contrary to human dignity,” the judge said that if no other prisons had room, prisoners closest to completing their sentences or serving short sentences for minor offences should be released or relocated to temporary release programs, meaning they spend nights in jail as long as they can prove they have a permanent address and a job.

Justice Ministry officials said the 92 inmates were relocated to other prisons, and no one has yet been released.

Murillo’s ruling sparked controversy at Costa Rica’s Supreme Court. The president of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala III, Justice Carlos Chinchilla, said Murillo has no authority to issue such an order and asked his peers to evaluate the ruling.

The request provoked a reaction from unions of the judicial branch who demonstrated “in defense of judicial independence.” On Oct. 14 the Supreme Court dismissed further discussion of Murillo’s ruling.

Murillo warned he would file charges at the Prosecutor’s Office against all officials involved if his order was ignored.

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