Sala IV orders changes to protect well being of La Reforma prisoners

The constitutional court ordered the justice ministry Wednesday to take steps to protect the human rights and physical well being of maximum security prisoners.

The government quickly announced actions that have been taken and will be taken to prevent what some prisoners claim are beatings and mistreatment at the Centro de Atención Institucional La Reforma in Alajuela.

The case on which the Sala IV constitutional court acted is just one of a number filed on behalf of prisoners. Some have been rejected by the court, and others still are pending, said the Ministerio de Justicia y Paz, which runs Adaptación Social, the prison agency.

Cristina Ramírez Chavarría, the new minister of Justica, announced late in the day that she had replaced the director of  Ámbito E with a woman lawyer who already works at the prison.

She will be supported by a team of psychologists and a social worker.

Ámbito E is a maximum security section of La Reforma, which has a long history of overcrowding and troubles.

The court gave the ministry three months to create a remedial plan, but the new minister reported that changes already were under way.

A statement noted that Carlos Abarca, a supervisor of security in this wing and one of those accused of aggression against inmates, has been replaced by a man named José Salas Varela.  That took place two days before the government of Luis Guillermo Solís took over, the ministry said.

Some 27 guards have been named in complaints, and of these, 17 no longer are assigned to Ámbito E, said the ministry.  The remaining 10 are on shifts that do not bring them in contact with prisoners, the announcement said.

The ministry also has taken action to plan frequent rotations of personnel who are psychologically and ethically equipped for the job, the ministry said.  In addition, all inmates will receive a medical checkup, said the statement. More proposals are expected at a meeting next week, it added.

The situation is embarrassing for the Costa Rican government, which prides itself as a protector of human rights. On paper La Reforma is a progressive penal institution with conjugal visits and frequent visits by family members. Some of these policies backfire with visits by prostitutes and the introduction of drugs and weaponry into the facility. Frequent sweeps reveal many types of weapons and other illegal items.

The prison also is a place where inmates operate scams with the assistance of associates outside. Mainly they use cell telephones. And prison authorities have been unable to block all the illegal calls.

A failed jail break at the prison May 11,  2011, resulted in the death of two inmates and a prison guard. Just days later inmate ringleader Jovel Guillermo Araya Ramírez was found dead in his cell. Medical reports showed he had been beaten multiple times and also immediately before his death.

Araya and others had petitioned the Defensoría de los Habitantes before the breakout attempt about conditions in the prison. The cell where he was found dead early one Sunday morning was supposed to be under 24-hour watch.

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