Costa Rica Prisons – The Ugly Facts

I figured that since I cover Costa Rica so extensively on this website, I’d like to delve into something you really want to avoid.  That, my friends, is ending up in a Costa Rican prison!

The Costa Rican penitentiary system, like many others in Central America, grapples with a myriad of challenges. From overcrowding to human rights concerns, the landscape is complex and multifaceted. Yet, it’s under these very challenges that Costa Rica has been proactive in implementing reforms, striving to improve conditions and championing the rights of those deprived of their liberty. This journey will explore the intricate world of Costa Rica prisons, delving into its structure, legal framework, and the ongoing efforts to uphold human rights and rehabilitation.

Prison Conditions in Costa Rica

  • The Costa Rican penitentiary system, despite robust safeguards and legal structures, faces challenges like overcrowding and has implemented reforms such as the prohibition of torture and the creation of legislation to classify torture as a distinct criminal offence.
  • The prison system manages a diverse and dynamic population with a high rate of mental health disorders (~58.4%). Efforts are underway to address overcrowding and to adapt to demographic changes, like the increasing number of foreign inmates and female prisoners.
  • Costa Rica is actively working on improving prison conditions and upholding inmates’ rights by ensuring access to legal aid, maintaining family visitation, offering educational and vocational programs, and focusing on rehabilitation to prepare inmates for reintegration post-release.

Understanding the Costa Rican Penitentiary System

Costa Rican prison facility

The Costa Rican penitentiary system, overseen by the Ministry of Justice, includes various prison facilities catering to a diverse prison population. It operates under a legal framework constituted by the Código Penal de Costa Rica and the Código Procesal Penal, with an additional layer of constitutional rights and safeguards against torture. Yet, despite its robust legal framework, the system has struggled with persistent difficulties such as overcrowding and a steadily increasing prison population.

Far from shying away, the Costa Rican government has met these challenges head-on by proactively implementing reforms. The goal is to better conditions within the system, enhancing the situation for those deprived of their liberty.

How Many Prisons are There in Costa Rica?

There are currently three primary prisons in Costa Rica.  La Reforma, which was featured on “Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons” on Netflix and widely considered one of the last places you ever want to visit.  Next is The Gerardo Rodriguez Echeverria which is referred to as “El Virilla,” and the Vilma Curling Rivera Women’s Prison.

The Structure of Authority in Prisons

The administrative authority in Costa Rican prisons is governed by the Ministry of Justice and Peace, ensuring that consular officers can visit and provide support to foreign nationals incarcerated in the country. The organizational structure of the prisons is diverse, with dedicated women’s prisons like the Vilma Curling Rivera prison catering to the specific needs of female inmates.

Maintaining order within the prisons is a responsibility shared by the Justice and Peace Ministry and the prison administration, specifically the General Directorate of Adaptation and Social Reintegration. Here, correctional officers hold a significant role as they supervise and regulate the inmate population.

Legal Framework Governing Prisons

The operation of prisons in Costa Rica is primarily regulated by the Law of National Prison Service Act and Access to Justice for the Execution of Sentences (Law 18.867). This legal framework ensures the ethical treatment of prisoners and oversees prison conditions. The country has even approved numerous international and regional human rights agreements, such as the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, which have a significant influence on its prison management procedures.

Recent Legislative Reforms

Several legislative reforms have been undertaken by Costa Rica, all with the intent to enhance the penitentiary system. These include:

  • The prohibition of actions that constitute torture or cruel and degrading treatment
  • The elimination of ‘dark cells’
  • The creation of an independent mechanism to prevent torture and ill-treatment.

Additionally, legislation was enacted in 2022 to classify torture as a distinct criminal offense, leading to penalties of three to 15 years of imprisonment for individuals convicted of this crime. These reforms have been prompted by public concern about insecurity and the need for tougher crime-control policies, reflecting a balance between security measures and rehabilitation opportunities.

Prison Population Dynamics

Overcrowded prison cell in Costa Rica

Diverse and dynamic, the prison population in Costa Rica constitutes approximately 19.9% of the national population. With an increasing trend in the number of female prisoners and the male prison population currently at approximately 19.9%, the demographic makeup of the prisons is continually changing.

The types of crimes that inmates are predominantly involved in range from financial crimes such as cyber-enabled fraudulent activities and identity theft, to domestic illegal activities like theft, homicide, and organized crime.

Trends in Overcrowding

A consistent issue, prison overcrowding in Costa Rican prisons has resulted in a 50 percent increase in the prison population over the past decade. Today, the current prison population exceeds the capacity limit by over 10%. In an attempt to address this, Costa Rica has implemented measures promoting alternatives to detention, leading to a 46% reduction in overcrowding. However, despite these efforts, the overcrowding rate still stands at 40.6%, with the male prison population being particularly affected.

Contributing factors to overcrowding include reforms to the criminal justice system and challenges such as violence, deterioration of facilities, disease, fire risks, lack of access to sanitation, and difficult working conditions.

Demographic Breakdown of Inmates

In Costa Rican prisons, the inmate demographic makeup is both diverse and intricate. With an estimated rate of mental health disorders among incarcerated individuals at approximately 58.4%, it is clear that the prison system is managing a unique set of challenges.

Furthermore, there are a significant number of foreign inmates in Costa Rica, predominantly originating from:

  • United States
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Canada
  • Spain
  • Mexico
  • Germany

This diversity requires a sensitive and inclusive approach to managing the prison population.

Daily Life Behind Bars: Conditions and Facilities

For many, life behind bars in Costa Rica presents a myriad of challenges. Overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, and difficulty in accessing medical care are just some of the issues that inmates face on a daily basis. Despite these challenges, the Costa Rican prison system is committed to improving conditions and providing inmates with a range of opportunities for self-improvement, personal development, and educational classes.

However, the reality of daily life in prison is often far from ideal, with instances of inmates sleeping on the floor and experiencing restricted visitation privileges with their families being reported.

Living Conditions and Basic Amenities

Leaving much to be desired, the living conditions in Costa Rican prisons are often marked by overcrowding. Cells, typically measuring 3 by 3 meters, are frequently overcrowded, particularly in facilities like the Vilma Curling Rivera prison for women and the San Sebastian center for male prisoners. Despite this, prisons provide food for the inmates and basic clothes washing and cooking facilities.

Moreover, special provisions are in place for female prisoners and their children, with women’s prison facilities like the Vilma Curling Rivera featuring a maternal and child module designed to accommodate pregnant women and those with young children under three years of age.

Access to Medical Treatment and Psychological Support

In Costa Rica, prisoners are fundamentally entitled to access medical treatment and psychological support. Prison authorities provide medical and dental treatment, and the state is mandated to provide regular medical check-ups and appropriate treatment as needed. For emergency situations, health units are established in each facility. However, the reality of accessing these services can be challenging due to overcrowding and inadequate facilities.

Educational and Vocational Opportunities

Despite the harsh conditions, Costa Rican prisons strive to provide inmates with opportunities for self-improvement and personal development. Some of the programs available include:

  • Educational and vocational skills development programs
  • A pilot program focused on teaching programming skills
  • Computer labs established in several prisons to provide access to technology.

These programs have a significant part in preparing inmates for their eventual release and reintegration into society.

Rights and Support for Prisoners

Legal representation for prisoners in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, prisoners’ rights and support are of utmost concern. From ensuring access to legal representation to preserving family connections, efforts are made to uphold the rights of those deprived of liberty. External support networks also play a significant role in providing care and assistance to prisoners.

This support extends to financial aid for those who lack other sources of income, and the protection of personal data.

Legal Representation and Aid

The right to legal representation is a fundamental right for prisoners in Costa Rica. The legal aid system encompasses pro bono services offered by both law firms and individual lawyers, as well as government-supported legal aid providers. Despite this, prisoners may face challenges in obtaining legal representation due to a shortage of guards, which can hinder their ability to obtain the necessary assistance.

Family Connections and Visitation Rights

Maintaining family connections is essential for the mental health and well-being of prisoners. In Costa Rica, prisoners are entitled to receive visitors at least once a week for a duration ranging from one to four hours. There are also provisions in place for intimate visits without discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Furthermore, underage visitors are allowed if accompanied by a responsible adult, and additional visits may be allowed for relatives coming from abroad.

Advocacy and External Support Networks

Advocacy groups and external support networks, as part of the costa rican civil society, play a significant role in advocating for prison reforms and providing support to prisoners and their families in Costa Rica. Organizations like the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, UNODC, and UNHCR are engaged in supporting prisoner rights.

WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas is one of the primary advocacy groups for prisoners’ rights in the country. They play a pivotal role in:

  • Advocating for prison reforms
  • Raising awareness about issues
  • Advocating for policy changes
  • Providing support to prisoners and their families.

Rehabilitation and Reintegration Efforts

Restorative justice program in Costa Rican prison

The Costa Rican penitentiary system places a key focus on rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. These efforts encompass an array of programs from restorative justice initiatives to preparing inmates for their eventual release.

The goal is to ensure that prisoners are not only serving their time but are also equipped with the skills and resources they need to reintegrate into society successfully.

Programs Promoting Restorative Justice

In Costa Rican prisons, restorative justice programs form an integral part of rehabilitation efforts. These programs involve a structured process that includes the participation of:

  • a judge
  • a prosecutor
  • psychologists
  • social workers
  • the victim

They focus on ‘repairing’ the harm caused by crime and conflict and offer an alternative approach to addressing crime and its consequences.

Such programs have demonstrated effectiveness by providing a humane and democratic process for participants.

Embracing Cultural Diversity in Rehabilitation

Within Costa Rican prisons, rehabilitation efforts warmly embrace cultural diversity. The penitentiary system integrates cultural diversity through constitutional reforms aimed at protecting cultural diversity and through national programs that adopt comprehensive and inclusive approaches to prevention, treatment, care, recovery, rehabilitation, and social integration.

Rehabilitation programs are specifically tailored to address the requirements of different cultural groups within Costa Rican prisons.

Preparing for Release

A critical aspect of rehabilitation efforts is the preparation for release. Costa Rica has established Comprehensive Care Units (Unidades de Atención Integral or ‘UAI’) as a program with the specific aim of preparing inmates for release. These programs offer opportunities for self-help, personal growth, and skill development.

Social workers play a crucial role in this process by:

  • Offering personalized care plans
  • Facilitating access to employment opportunities and education
  • Providing psychological support to aid in their successful reintegration into society.

Navigating Legal Challenges: Arrest to Release

From arrest to release, an inmate’s journey is laden with legal challenges. Understanding these challenges is crucial for both inmates and their legal representatives. The legal journey involves numerous procedures, rights, and regulations, including:

  • Initial detention
  • Conviction
  • Sentencing
  • Appeals

Furthermore, for foreign prisoners, understanding deportation and transfer procedures is essential. This section aims to provide an overview of the legal process from arrest to release in Costa Rica.

From Detention to Conviction

In Costa Rica, the progression from detention to conviction involves a series of stages. Upon arrest, an individual is taken into custody by local authorities, and the courts are given a 48-hour window to determine whether to impose preventive prison.

The trial system in Costa Rica does not involve a jury; instead, trials are overseen by either a single judge or a three-judge panel, depending on the potential severity of the penalty. The Public Ministry holds a significant role in this process as it is responsible for initiating criminal proceedings and carrying out preliminary investigations of offenses.

Sentencing and Appeals

Sentencing in Costa Rica is influenced by factors such as the severity of the crime and the individual’s degree of involvement. The sentencing is determined by the judge or a panel of judges following the guidelines established in the Código Penal de Costa Rica. Once a sentence has been served, prisoners can seek parole, also referred to as ‘libertad condicional’, once they reach the halfway point, subject to numerous conditions and assessment by the sentencing judge.

Furthermore, ‘prisión preventiva’ or pre-trial detention for serious crimes can vary in duration and may be extended at the prosecutor’s request, based on the charges and gravity of the offense.

Deportation and Transfer Procedures

Law No. 4762 of 8 May 1971 governs the deportation and transfer of prisoners, especially those of foreign nationality, who can be considered as persons deprived of their freedom. If a prisoner lacks a passport or air ticket for deportation, the criminal court will issue a remand detention order until the detainee obtains all the necessary documents to exit the country.

A foreign prisoner in Costa Rica may request a transfer to their home country, provided that there is a pre-existing prisoner transfer agreement in place between Costa Rica and the respective country.

Addressing Human Rights Concerns

In any penitentiary system, human rights concerns are of critical importance. In Costa Rica, with its commitment to upholding human rights, these concerns are taken very seriously. From addressing reports of torture and mistreatment to implementing monitoring and accountability measures, the country has taken significant strides in protecting the rights of prisoners. Also, it has engaged in international collaborations to improve prison conditions and implement reforms.

Reports of Torture and Mistreatment

Despite the existence of comprehensive legal and institutional safeguards, prisons have faced allegations of torture and mistreatment. In response to these allegations, the Costa Rican government has taken steps such as having the Ombudsperson’s Office investigate all prisoner complaints, including credible allegations of torture and other mistreatment.

Additionally, it aims to enhance the protection of individuals in prisons to prevent torture and ill-treatment. However, there have been no recent reported cases of torture and mistreatment in Costa Rican prisons involving State officials, demonstrating the effectiveness of the measures in place.

International Collaboration for Prison Reform

In Costa Rica, prison reform benefits significantly from international collaborations. Some examples of these collaborations include:

  • The development of UN standards and norms based on human rights arguments
  • The Quaker reformation that separated men and women in prisons
  • The collaborative efforts of Penal Reform International (PRI) in achieving measurable progress in justice outcomes.

These collaborations have proven effective in helping Costa Rica address its prison challenges and implement reforms.

Monitoring and Accountability Measures

To ensure the protection of prisoners’ rights in Costa Rica, monitoring and accountability measures are indispensable mechanisms. The supervision of the penitentiary system falls under the responsibility of the justice ministry, which ensures compliance with international standards and guidelines for monitoring and accountability. Independent monitoring by local and international human rights observers is allowed, and the government endeavors to adhere to international norms.

Human rights violations, such as overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and limited medical care, are reported within the Costa Rican penitentiary system and addressed through measures like confidential interviews with both prisoners and prison officials.


The journey through the Costa Rican penitentiary system has been a deep dive into a system grappling with numerous challenges, but also a system that is proactive and committed to reform. From the legislative frameworks to the daily life of prisoners, the challenges of overcrowding to the efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration, and the legal challenges from arrest to release, the landscape is indeed complex and multifaceted. Yet, the commitment to uphold human rights, the tireless efforts of advocacy groups, and the collaborations at the international level all speak to a system that is striving to improve. The road to reform is not easy, and the challenges are numerous, but with perseverance and dedication, progress is achievable.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the conditions like in Costa Rica prisons?

Prison conditions in Costa Rica are considered harsh, with overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and difficulties in obtaining medical care. This has led to serious issues such as violence among prisoners and inhumane living conditions.

What are the rights of prisoners in Costa Rica?

In Costa Rica, prisoners have the right not to be subjected to cruel or degrading treatment, the right not to be subjected to life sentences, and access to constitutional protections such as habeas corpus and amparo. These rights are part of a strong institutional framework and safeguards against torture.

Which country has the highest incarceration rate in the world?

According to this graphic by Statista, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate per capita.

prison population per capita

Which country has the least prisons?

The Central African Republic has the lowest prison rate of any country, with only 16 prisoners for every 100,000 people. This data is based on World Prison Brief database.

What is the current prison population in Costa Rica?

The current prison population in Costa Rica is estimated to be 343 out of every 100,000 people, according to

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Tim Schmidt is a 20+ year Entrepreneur and Digital Marketer. A Fort Lauderdale-based "Digital Nomad," he enjoys traveling as much as possible with family and friends. AllWorld is his escape to document all of his adventures, including being a hardcore "foodie." He has property in Costa Rica and visits several times each year and is happy to offer his expert advice for planning your trip.

2 thoughts on “Costa Rica Prisons – The Ugly Facts”

  1. You state that:

    “The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million prisoners nationwide (World Prison Brief, October 2021).”

    The current US population is about 332 million. The fraction incarcerated is therefore approximately 2/332 x 100% = 0.6%.

    You then write that:

    “What is the current prison population in Costa Rica?
    The current prison population in Costa Rica is estimated to be roughly 19.9% of the national population, based on recent data.”

    That is 33 times the US incarceration rate. I believe you have made an error.

    Robert Matlock

    • Thank you for pointing that out, Robert. We went back and updated the article to reflect that. Thanks for your help and readership!


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