Bru­tal con­di­tions at San Lucas prison is­land made the death penalty look hu­mane.

Howler Magazine - - Coverstory - by Karl Kahler

For the most in­cor­ri­gi­ble mis­be­hav­ior, like killing an­other prisoner, in­mates at the San Lucas prison is­land were low­ered into “the hole” — lit­er­ally a hole in the mid­dle of a big con­crete disc on top of what was de­signed to be a cis­tern to hold rain­wa­ter.

This un­der­ground dun­geon ac­tu­ally did hold wa­ter, some­times up to a man's midriff, so the un­for­tu­nate souls con­demned to this grue­some pun­ish­ment were un­able to sit, much less lie down and sleep, for how­ever many days and nights they had to endure this tor­ture.

“You had to stand for days, and some­times they had peo­ple in there for like a month, and they came out ei­ther dead or crazy,” said Vigdis Vat­shaug, the Nor­we­gian tour guide who led my fam­ily on a fas­ci­nat­ing and dis­turb­ing tour of one of the most bru­tal prison is­lands on earth — right here in the hap­pi­est coun­try in the world, in the Gulf of Ni­coya, a short boat ride away from Playa Naranjo.

San Lucas Is­land is best-known as the set­ting of “La isla de los hom­bres so­los” (“The Is­land of Lonely Men”), a novel writ­ten by the for­mer in­mate José León Sánchez, a Tico ac­cused of steal­ing re­li­gious icons from the Basil­ica of Cartago who spent 30 years im­pris­oned here.

In this case, the truth is ev­ery bit as strange as the fic­tion. As soon as we dis­em­barked from our boat at the rusty old pier, we climbed the steps to the “Camino de Amar­gura,” the “Road of Bit­ter­ness” that greeted new in­mates upon ar­rival dur­ing the years the prison was open, from 1873 to 1991.

Flank­ing this road are two small, dirty rooms, now filled with bats, where new ar­rivals were wel­comed by be­ing cor­ralled into a filthy, crowded en­clo­sure with no place to sit or sleep ex­cept the floor. They were given very lit­tle food, and the bath­room was a bucket in the mid­dle of the floor. New ar­rivals spent sev­eral days in this dun­geon — let­ting them know what lay ahead, and un­doubt­edly mak­ing them thank­ful when they were re­leased to larger

quar­ters with sep­a­rate la­trines.

“Peo­ple were not pun­ished for do­ing some­thing wrong,” Vigdis said. “They were pun­ished so they wouldn't do any­thing wrong.”

The ball and chain

Each in­mate was is­sued a ball and chain at­tached to his an­kle, with the size of the iron ball com­men­su­rate to his crime. The largest iron ball might weigh 50 pounds, and these were never re­moved. Pris­on­ers oddly took pride in keep­ing their ball and chain clean, ac­cord­ing to Sánchez's book.

“They all kept pol­ish­ing and keep­ing their ball and chain very nice,” Vigdis said. “They never would drag it be­cause then it would be dirty; there was a pride in hav­ing a very nice ball and chain.”

In the worst cases, Vigdis said, two men were shack­led shoul­der to shoul­der, so that nei­ther man could sit, lie, walk or void his bow­els without the other man at his side.

Some men spent decades here, and a great many died in this des­o­late place. Vigdis said an as­ton­ish­ing 20 per­cent, one out of five, died in their first year.

A few men man­aged to es­cape, hav­ing re­moved their shack­les with tools they were given to break rocks. They had to brave strong cur­rents to swim to the near­est is­land, or even to the main­land, but Vigdis said all es­capees died or were re­cap­tured.

The brave hooker

The hap­pi­est story we heard was about the day the pros­ti­tute came. Vigdis re­lated a tale from the book about a prison com­man­der who hated ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, which was ram­pant on a prison is­land for only men.

The war­den de­cided that the only way to put a stop to all the sodomy was to bring in women. So the guards went to Puntare­nas (also known as “Putare­nas”) and re­cruited pros­ti­tutes to ser­vice the pris­on­ers.

“And the pris­on­ers were of course ex­cited,” Vigdis said. “They cleaned up the best they could, and were mak­ing lit­tle presents for the ladies.

“So the boat comes back from Puntare­nas and it's empty — be­cause these pros­ti­tutes have only heard of this prison as a very dan­ger­ous place, with bru­tal crim­i­nals, mur­der­ers, rapists. But they tried again the next Sun­day and one woman came. And the guards said they put her in the vis­i­ta­tion house, and ev­ery­body got in line, and they de­cided how much time they had with her.

“She went back to Puntare­nas and said the pris­on­ers were all well-be­haved

Pris­on­ers oddly took pride in keep­ing their ball and chain clean.

and they all loved her and said she was beau­ti­ful and every­thing, so the fol­low­ing Sun­days there were more com­ing in.”

My girl­friend, Guiselle, who used to live in nearby Pa­quera and vis­ited this is­land many years ago, said the youngest, best­look­ing pris­on­ers were taken as lovers by the tough­est in­mates, and if they were un­faith­ful, they were killed. Vigdis said sev­eral men were forced into pros­ti­tu­tion, or did it will­ingly, ser­vic­ing any­one who could pay with a bowl of food, a shirt or what­ever.

The walls of the nine cell­blocks here are cov­ered with graf­fiti, in­clud­ing porno­graphic pic­tures and for­lorn com­ments. One note says, “Kneepads and bibs sold here,” signed by the ger­ente de ven­tas, the “sales man­ager.”

One striking draw­ing por­trays a larger-than-life-size woman in a sexy pose, wear­ing a bikini that Vigdis said was re­port­edly painted in blood.

“Some say that he cut him­self ev­ery day to paint again and again, and other sto­ries say that he cut other peo­ple to col­lect blood,” she said.

Guiselle, who once met a for­mer

San Lucas prisoner, said he told her that some­one killed an­other prisoner here and used his blood to write on the wall: “This is how I'm go­ing to die.”

It's hard to sep­a­rate truth from leg­end here, as the prison's log books were thrown into the sea years ago. Vigdis is aware of one non­fic­tion book about the prison, “Una his­to­ria sin fin,” “A Story With No End,” but she has never been able to find it. Most of her in­for­ma­tion comes from Sánchez's novel and from the oral his­to­ries re­lated by for­mer guards, pris­on­ers and vis­i­tors.

Laun­dry ser­vice

In­mates were is­sued a striped uni­form upon ar­rival that had to last them two or three years. In the early days, laun­dry ser­vice was as nonex­is­tent as med­i­cal at­ten­tion, and of course peo­ple smelled pretty bad.

“So a lot of the pris­on­ers walked around naked be­cause they had lost a shirt in a bet over a piece of bread,” Vigdis said. “They could only wash [clothes] if they were on the beach, in salt wa­ter, but the only fresh wa­ter they got was to drink.”

If a prisoner died, other in­mates could buy his clothes with some of their food.

“And the peo­ple that died, they were of­ten sick and had in­fec­tion and lice and so on,” she said. “And you were so happy be­cause it was a bet­ter shirt, or maybe you didn't have any, and you're wear­ing the sweat and the blood of some­one who just died.”

The ar­chi­tects of this is­land were French, who were ex­perts in prison is­lands

Laun­dry ser­vice was as nonex­is­tent as med­i­cal at­ten­tion, and of course peo­ple smelled pretty bad.

(look up Devil's Is­land, or read the book “Papil­lon”). The worst of the hor­rors here date from the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury, though a na­tion­wide prison re­form in the 1960s eased con­di­tions here con­sid­er­ably. Balls and chains were abol­ished, and some pris­on­ers were able to build crude houses, plant gar­dens and raise chick­ens.

A sus­pi­cious fire

There is a beau­ti­ful lit­tle church here, newly ren­o­vated, though it is locked up. Ad­ja­cent to it, there used to be a three­story ca­sona, with bed­rooms and of­fices for the war­den and guards — al­though it made na­tional news when this build­ing was burned to the ground on the night of Nov. 24-25, 2017. Spec­u­la­tion has it that il­le­gal fish­er­men may have burned the house as pay­back for the gov­ern­ment's con­fis­ca­tion of their fish­ing equip­ment.

The ca­sona looked out on a court­yard con­tain­ing the con­crete disc with “the hole,” and just be­yond that are seven cell­blocks that housed per­haps 100 peo­ple each.

The peo­ple in the cell­blocks could hear the screams and cries of the wretched peo­ple stand­ing in wa­ter day and night in the hole. And mean­while, all the pris­on­ers could smell the de­li­cious food be­ing served in the ca­sona at din­ner par­ties for the com­man­der and his guards.

Costa Rica's most mis­er­able allinclu­sive re­sort was fi­nally closed in 1991, its in­mates re­lo­cated to other pris­ons. José León Sánchez was de­clared in­no­cent of the Basil­ica crime in 1988, and to­day he is Costa Rica's best-known writer. He is still alive and liv­ing in Here­dia.

“Are there any ghosts here?” I asked Vigdis.

“There are lots of ghosts,” she said. One graf­fito on the wall, in neat hand­writ­ing and per­fect rhyme, says:

En este lu­gar Maldito Que Reina La Tris­teza No se Castiga el Delito Se Castiga la Po­breza

A free trans­la­tion:

In this God-for­saken place Of sad­ness all the time

It's not crime that makes the case It's poverty that's the crime

Aerial view of the cen­tral com­pound at San Lucas. Photo: Re­caredo Cer­das

Pho­tos by Karl Karl Kahler

Graf­fito de­pict­ing a soc­cer player, ap­par­ently Pelé. Photo1:

aRreaddo. Clik­ered.

The re­cently ren­o­vated church, right, is the only struc­ture on this is­land that is pretty, but un­for­tu­nately it's locked. The ca­sona where com­man­ders lived, left, re­cently burned to the ground. Photo: Re­caredo Cer­das

This kitchen was still un­der con­struc­tion when the San Lucas prison closed in 1991. The roof has since dis­in­te­grated and trees have taken root in­side the walls. Photo: Karl Kahler

In­side one of the prison cell­blocks. Photo: Re­caredo Cer­das

Prison cell­blocks sur­round­ing the in­fa­mous pun­ish­ment hole. Photo: Re­caredo Cer­das

A neatly printed poem, in per­fect rhyme, laments that it's not crime that's pun­ished here but poverty. Photo: Karl Kahler

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