Life in the Prison of Gardens

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In the shade of a guava tree, inmate Rodrigo Jiménez sits on a plastic bucket and tells me how 30 years ago he decided to become a landscaper.

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in August and we’re at Liberia’s Center for Institutional Attention (CAI), also known as the Calle Real prison. We’re sitting outdoors, in a vast garden tended to by Jiménez and his helpers.

Sitting here, the only reminder that freedom remains on the other side is a harsh perimeter wall blanketed by razor wire. The images of overcrowding broadcast by news outlets at other correctional facilities in the country don’t reflect the reality here, and actually seem to contradict it.

El Centro de Atención Institucional (CAI) de Liberia es conocido como la cárcel Calle Real y se ubica en el centro del cantón guanacasteco.

This is the third least populated prison in Costa Rica, with an overcrowding rate just under 6 percent. That statistic is noticeable: As I walk around the facilities, I see paved roads and green areas with heliconias, palms, fruit trees and rose bushes.

“What happened here?” I ask José Mario Coronado, the prison’s director, who in September will have completed 33 years on the job. In all of Central America, Coronado is longest-serving correctional facility director in terms of consecutive years served.

His answer is concise, but profound: Humanizamos los espacios” – “We humanize the spaces.”

It was he who suggested Rodrigo Jiménez create green areas here, an idea born from the prison’s overall philosophy.

Although there are maximum security cell blocks to house the most dangerous inmates, such as D1 and D2, the general practice is to allow the more than 900 inmates to practice sports, small-scale farming, craftwork – including the use of sharp tools – and studying, all accompanied by the natural sunlight.

A Different Landscape

Behind the razor wire, there is a story of pain that Rodrigo Jiménez prefers not to tell, and that has left at least one victim’s life damaged. But inside these prison walls, there is a different story, one of light, in which this same man has brought joy to hundreds of inmates.  

Jiménez, who has served 16 months so far, is a landscaper by trade, and all of the prison’s gardens reflect his trademark skill.

“When don José Mario first suggested the project, I sketched out a design of the spaces to work with, as well as the nurseries. Later we taught the others to prune and graft plants. We gave them technical training on how to maintain a garden.”

The job required measuring step-by-step every single street and space that would house plants and trees. Later, he drafted a layout, selected land and plants, and began to grow his vision.

To date he’s produced 35 gardens in 12 areas of the prison and a nursery where inmates can sell plants to visitors for $1-2. Income is used for expenses inside, such as at prison pulperías, or small stores.

He says the work has helped him grow as a professional, but it also has taught him humility. Before he was sent here, Jiménez was accustomed to giving the orders and being the boss at his company.

I hadn’t touched a shovel in more than 30 years,” he said. Now, he has to work with his hands like everyone else.

It is, however, a liberty with limits: As Jiménez tells us his story, the head of prison security, Roger López, keeps close watch. López later tells me about the stress and tension he experienced at other prisons, quite unlike the calm he feels at Calle Real.

“A few months ago I worked at La Reforma (Costa Rica’s sprawling prison north of the capital) and the environment there was very tense. Inmates and guards are very stressed, and that generates a lot of friction and misunderstandings. It’s completely different here,” López said.

Exporting Green

Jiménez’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere in the country. José Mario Coronado said other prison directors now want to create their own green spaces to help make them more humane. Coronado, who says he is a promoter of the humanization of prisons and is an adviser to the Justice and Peace Ministry, plans to extend the idea to all of the country’s correctional facilities.

He will start by sending the landscaper to the San Rafael de Alajuela CAI and the Liberia Semi-Institutional Correctional Center to train other inmates and produce similar designs for gardens with native plants. His aspiration is for inmates to be rehabilitated, instead of adopting worse behaviors when they leave, and helping them envision a new, different life in the future.

At noon, I catch up with Jiménez again, who is accompanied by five shiny foreheads covered in sweat from gardening.  

The gardens not only have changed the scenery at Liberia’s CIA, they have given new meaning to the lives of inmates here. They have provided an incentive for inmates to turn their lives and behavior around. And in so doing, the punishment and pain become a little more tolerable.