Costa Rica’s prisons exceed capacity by over 10%, reports the Ministry of Justice and Peace. During the pandemic, overcrowding declined but has since rebounded. In 2020, occupancy surpassed capacity by 21.4%, but a year later, overcrowding dropped to 8.9%. By 2022, it further declined to 6.4% before rising sharply to 13.1% this year – more than doubling in 12 months.
This influx equates to 1,800 additional inmates beyond prison design limits. Experts cite two primary drivers of bloated cell blocks. First, the overuse of pretrial detention and legislation focused on imprisonment rather than rehabilitation. “We should have a different policy, focused on the reeducation of the people who end up in prison,” stated the Public Defense Director Juan Carlos Perez.
Second, insufficient construction of new facilities to house dangerous criminals, according to former Vice Minister of Public Security Alvaro Ramos. He believes this failure to expand capacity impacted public safety.
In contrast, the Observatory of the Penal System and Human Rights Director Iñaki Rivera Beiras noted last month that climbing prisoner counts stem not just from more crime but also stricter sentencing laws and procedural reforms.
Beiras insists Costa Rica should emphasize preventative and opportunity programs that encourage human development over detention. Moreover, he argues that jam-packed prisons actually reveal the ineffectiveness of early intervention and social strategies.
The country needs a cultural and educational shift to initiate real change, including developing new sanctions like electronic monitoring, house arrest, check-ins, disqualifications, and prohibitions.
In essence, the swelling inmate population results from some combination of heightened crime, harsher penalties, due process modifications, and scarce alternatives to incarceration. While more prisons may provide short-term relief, lasting solutions require prevention over punishment, rehabilitation over retribution, and societal priorities that stress education and opportunity.
Without transforming its philosophical approach, Costa Rica’s overcrowding woes seem destined to worsen irrespective of added capacity. The choice resides in its hands – evolve now by reimagining prison’s purpose or risk spiraling social breakdowns.