A deafening silence drones through the crumbling buildings of San Lucas Prison, Costa Rica’s infamous Alcatraz. Located on Isla San Lucas, a two-square mile island ringed with pristine beaches and lush jungle, the prison is set in the heart of Costa Rica’s shark-infested Gulf of Nicoya. For more than 100 years – from 1873 until 1991 – the country’s most violent criminals (and political prisoners) as young as 14- or 15-years old were incarcerated in this hellish paradise.
Stories of rape, murder, and torture haunt the island and its cell walls are scarred with explicit prison art: sex, devil worship, Jesus, homoeroticism. Its most notorious drawing – and arguably the prison’s biggest draw – is “The Woman in the Red Bikini.” The life-size mural of a beautiful woman was painted with the blood of a brutally abused and murdered female prison employee. [Writer’s note: The full story might be too graphic for some so skip to the next paragraph if so]. The female employee was gang-raped by 75 prisoners, murdered, and then had her liver and breasts viciously removed. The body parts were then given to the artist who mixed her blood with the paint.
When the prison was still running, 50 prisoners were ferried to the island twice a month. First they waiting in the scalding sun for half a day while getting beaten with metal rods by the prison guards. Then they were divided into two groups and crammed into small holding cells for two days until the prison decided whether they belonged in the minimum, medium, or maximum security wings. Finally, the prisoners were marched down the Street of Bitterness, the island’s main pathway that connects the dock to the security wings. The worst of the worst were sent to the maximum security area whose barracks encircle “El Hueco” or The Hole, a former underground water cistern repurposed as a punishment chamber. Today, visitors can drop into the tank through its round, two-foot wide opening and experience where prisoners were held for days on end in near total darkness and sweltering 140-degree Fahrenheit heat.
In 2008, the island was declared a Costa Rican national park and the jungle is slowly encroaching and devouring the prison. Roots spill over and through shattered ceilings and walls, bats streak through its darkest corners and if you listen closely, the howler monkeys shrieks echo like the long ago prisoners’ tortured cry.
The photos below are just the beginning. I’ll be posting interactive panoramas of the prison and a 360-degree walkthrough virtual tour of the cell that contains the infamous “Woman in the Red Bikini” mural. Stay tuned.