What are the jails like in Costa Rica?

Unfortunately, I can tell you.

In fact, I spent a significant amount of time in Costa Rican jails between the period of 2011 and 2012. But before you think of me as a dreg of society, let me clarify. I was actually in these jails because I had a good friend – a U.S. dude who was living in Costa Rica – that ran afoul of the law, was arrested and incarcerated for a period of about 3 ½ years.

Normally, that would mean that I only have insight into the safe, cushy visiting rooms but in Costa Rica, it doesn’t really work that way.

Honestly, it was so wild to see that I could write a whole book on the experience and what I saw (I actually did write a book about it!), but this review will suffice for now.

So, what can I tell you about jails in Costa Rica? First off, to state the obvious, you don’t want to go to them – especially as a foreigner. Don’t mess with drugs or anything illegal in that country. There will be no leniency or “Get out of jail free” pass just because you’re a foreigner, no matter how much money you have. In fact, you’ll probably be targeted and victimized just because you’re not a Tico.

There are basically two types of jails in Costa Rica; smaller, local ones, and then the big, bad prisons. Of those prisons, by far the biggest is the infamous La Reforma in the capital city of San Jose. Outside of being imprisoned in Limon or some other rough area, I really can’t think of a worse place to go than the maximum security area of La Reforma.

My buddy was going through a trial (which was a complete kangaroo court, but that’s for another time, too). During the year or so of his trial and right after his sentencing, he was confined at the prison outside of Liberia, the city in the northwest region of Guanacaste near where their international airport sits.

It was little more than some concrete cages in the middle of the jungle, and that’s no exaggeration. The cells were relegated to individual compounds or cellblocks, where you have a series of tiny concrete structures with one barred window to the outside and bars on the front wall. These encircled a bare concrete and dirt courtyard. Some of them had a small concrete dining or recreation room with a few plastic tables. Everything was open-air, and the courtyard was open to the sky.

Prisoners were sometimes packed eight to a cell that was designed to house two people. The beds were just roughly thrown together wood planks. Prisoners had to provide their own foam bedrolls or pillows or else they slept on the bare wood. And many had to sleep on the floor where there was not enough room.

The heat was unbearable. When it rained (which was a lot), everything was soaking wet and steaming with humidity.

The food situation was dire, too. They served each prisoner about 600 calories per day. That’s it. The chow usually consisted of beans and a stale or moldy hot dog bun in the morning, some more beans for lunch, and another hotdog bun for dinner, if there was enough left over.

Here’s the craziest part: they didn’t segregate prisoners based on their crimes or sentences. So, murderers, kidnappers, and members of the drug cartels (and there were A LOT of those!l were in the same cells and cellblocks with those caught for recreational marijuana or arrested for robbery, for instance.

How did I see all of this from the inside? As a visitor, they take your passport, stamp your arm like you were going into a nightclub (and tell you not to sweat it off, or you might not get out!), and lock you in the individual cell blocks WITH the prisoners. So you’re sitting there in general population among all of these murderers and drug dealers and rapists during the whole duration of your visit, with really no guard protection or supervision!

Above, I started telling you about the jails and prisons in Costa Rica.

You can read it here, or I can sum up the two-year period where I saw the inside of Costa Rica’s incarceration system with this: no bueno.

I told you how I visited every week and the guards would stamp my arm, take my passport, and lock me in general population with the other prisoners until I was ready to leave. But there was little or no guard supervision or protection once I was inside.

I also shared that prisoners only were given about 600 calories a day in beans and old hot dog buns, and slept on the floor unless they had they own bedding brought in.

In fact, everything was about money there and the prison had its own complex economy.

The prisoners had to have someone bring in their bedroll and a pillow but also a regular supply of food to sustain them. So, every weekend I would take a taxi 90 minutes from Tamarindo (where I was living) to the city of Liberia, where I’d stock up on supplies and then bring them into the jail. The lines were long and we waited for hours sometimes in the hot sun, and I was the one and only foreigner visiting (my buddy was the only foreigner in the whole jail for most of it!).

The guards checked everythin g intensely, as people smuggled in drugs or weapons just about anywhere they could, like in the bottom of a stew, in a hollowed out watermelon, etc., and even women were checked intimately by female guards.

Once inside, I needed no reminder that I was in the Third World. Outside every concrete complex or cell block, I saw dozens of skinny, young, tattooed men, most of them shirtless due to the heat, right up the bars. They had nothing better to do than watch the spectacle of visitors and a fat white foreigner walking through, so they stared daggers into me, making me sweat more, and often called out for me to throw them a coin – or insults when I didn’t. Intimidating!

Inside the cell block, things were a little more calm since my friend was known and had his niche. There are so many guys locked in a tiny space, it’s so hot, and they have literally nothing to do but sit around the concrete courtyard or maybe watch a soccer match on a TV the guards wheeled in on special occasions, so everyone knew their boundaries. If not, the place would explode into violence and riots.

Everywhere I looked and walked guys were hanging out and sitting. Some wore jeans and brand new Jordans, while some wore rags and barely had flip-flops.

The good news is that my buddy quickly befriended the right people to look out for him. He had a “fixer” dude who was connected and knew everything and good at trading and bribing guards, etc., and then a big crazy looking Columbian guy he called “Mike Tyson” as his muscle. I handed my buddy the groceries and things, but on the sly, so the other prisoners wouldn’t see what new goods he had that they might steal or so they wouldn’t get jealous. I even brought Burger King into the jail, and made sure to bring some for the Fixer and Mike Tyson, too.

Then, we would just sit and sweat and sweat and sweat as he talked and told me about the jail’s daily happenings and his court case.

One time, there was a riot. He didn’t know it was going down beforehand, but everyone else did because he said he could sense the violent energy in the air. First thing in the morning when the guards open the cells, every single prisoner rushed out into the courtyard and started fighting, with sticks and shanks and chunks of concrete or whatever they could get their hands on. A few people were stabbed, and security tightened up like crazy after that, so it was harder to get things into the jail (drugs and money), and the prisoners were even tenser.

He had more run-ins – with a couple of the other prisoners and the guards – which are incredible stories in their own right.

But, in some ways, despite the incredibly spartan conditions and the fact that you’re locked up with murderers, those doing life sentences, etc., I imagine that there was still a shred of civility and even mercy within those walls. While it would have been way too easy to make him the victim for his entire sentence, guys actually took it easy on him, and he even gained their respect, so emerged relatively unscathed after three and a half years.

However, please take my word for it – you DON’T want to end up in a Costa Rican jail!