Obras del Espíritu Santo is Working to Prevent Children from Entering Life of Crime

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Raúl, 12, is homeless.

He doesn’t know why his parents are incarcerated.

His brother, Jeffrey, 15, is a drug dealer.

But Raúl doesn’t want to follow his family’s path.

Raúl is among more than 36,000 children who participate in programs offered by Obras del Espíritu Santo (OES), an NGO that works with the nation’s youth to prevent them from entering a life of crime. OES also provides counseling to ex-convicts to keep them from returning to prison.

“We act to prevent kids from getting involved in criminal activity,” said Daina Underwood, 67, a retired psychologist and OES volunteer. “We work to achieve a comprehensive personal development in them.”

The approach of OES, which seeks to stop those from committing crimes because they are destitute, is to instill confidence in youths so they can better themselves through legal means.

“I’m not only going to give you food, and not only am I going to heal you,” Underwood said. “I’m going to give you those values you need to make good choices.”

The work of OES couldn’t come at a better time in Costa Rica, a Central American nation with a population of 4.5 million.

Costa Rica’s penal system is severely overcrowded. A total of 11,135 convicts were housed inside the country’s 41 prisons as of March 2011, according to the Social Adaptation Bureau, a branch of the Ministry of Justice that’s in charge of the nation’s penal system.

“Costa Rican jails have, in this moment, a density of 130%, ten points higher than what is considered ‘critical overpopulation’ according to international standards,” said Elías Carranza, director of the Costa Rica-based United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.

The Costa Rican penal system is a victim of its efficiency, Carranza said.

“There is an increase in crime and society is calling for more people in jail,” he said. “The penal justice system in Costa Rica responded efficiently by imprisoning more people, and it locked down so many people that today it is one of the four countries with the highest rates of inmates in Latin America.”

Father Sergio Valverde, founder of OES, poses with his staff of volunteers at the NGO’s headquarters of San José, Costa Rica. (Mario Garita for Infosurhoy.com)

Inmates taught art in prison

Asociación Persona – Mentes en Libertad and its director, author and illustrator Haru Wells, started the “Al Margen” (On the edge) art project in 1994 in La Reforma, a prison in the province of Alajuela, 23 kilometers (14 miles) northwest of the capital of San José.

The program teaches inmates to express themselves through drawings and paintings, Wells said.

“We feel proud to know that young people who have been incarcerated have reinserted themselves successfully into society after taking our workshops in Costa Rican prisons,” she said.

Jorge Calderón, a 39-year-old who participated in the “Al Margen” program while he was serving a 15-year sentence for theft, narcotics trafficking and resisting arrest, said the program works.

“It was a painting group that was not meant to make painters, it was more like the vehicle to get out all those ghosts from the past, put them on paper, and learn to live with them,” said Calderón, who used the skills he learned to land a job with an audio visual company. “It is not to the adult to whom we should give the tools to make changes. We need to give them to the children so they never get to the point where they are sent to prison.”

He added: “You don’t get any benefit trying to get people out of jail. You have to try to prevent people from getting to jail on the first place, which is different.”

In juvenile prisons, the National Commission for the Improvement of the Administration of Justice (CONAMAJ) is in charge of the counseling programs offered to inmates.

“I asked a boy if he thought that what he had done was wrong, and he told me no,” said Sara Castillo, executive director of CONAMAJ. “For him, to point a gun to a lady and steal her cell phone was not wrong because it was something normal in his environment. He told me that he was not going to shoot anyway, that it was only to scare her. We’re working with him and others to help them understand that what they did is not OK.”

Meantime, Raúl is looking forward to a much brighter future.

“I want to be an architect to build a house for all my friends,” he said.

By Mario Garita