Saturday, March 19, 2011

ACS (Jail Visits)

One aspect of ACS (American Citizen Services) work is visiting Amcits in prison. We have a decent number of folks in the jails throughout the country. Americans in Costa Rica get arrested for a variety of reasons, ranging from drug trafficking (very common) and sexual assault to murder and immigration violations. Others are arrested for crimes committed in the U.S. and then extradited. Regardless of the charges or conviction, Americans are never abandoned in overseas jails.

That said, Americans are subject to the justice systems of the sovereign nations where they choose to break the laws. Contrary to popular belief, we can’t come bust you out of jail. We can, however, work to ensure that you are not mistreated, that you receive necessary medical attention, and facilitate communications with family, lawyers, etc. We bring English magazines, toiletries, clothes, and other assistance as we can.

Recently, I’ve visited several of our inmates at several detention facilities, including the women’s prison and the psychiatric hospital. It is quite an experience. Between the double-capacity men’s jail, the women’s facility, and the psych hospital, I’m not sure which is scarier.

The men’s prison is oppressive—claustrophobic, dirty, hopeless. There are lots of guards, but we still have to enter and area where the inmates outnumber outsiders. The Americans complain of mild harassment (for being gringos and for not speaking Spanish) by other prisoners, but overall are in good spirits. Most just want to move to prisons in the U.S. That should tell you something about what it’s like in jail in Central America.

There is only one women’s facility in Costa Rica. It’s a lot more open than the men’s jails—like a small, walled neighborhood. They have a church, a school, and a convenience store. Some children live there with their mothers. Our Amcits there talk about the same harassment from other inmates, but are able to work as English teachers in the school. One problem I see that by having only one place for the women, there is no separation between violent and non-violent criminals.
The psychiatric hospital is the same way—no separation between “regular” cases and the criminally insane. Walking the paths one is subjected to endless solicitations for money or cigarettes, often by groups of people, and occasionally with pocket patting. The grounds are nice, but it’s unnerving to be surrounded and outnumbered by the unstable.

But these are the exactly the kind of experiences I signed up for. The feeling of directly helping or bringing comfort to another person is extremely rewarding and motivating for me. Consular work is full of these feelings, especially ACS.

Monday, March 14, 2011


It has recently been pointed out (by several people) that my blog has not been updated in a while. I'd like to say it's because I've been too busy, or because my wife takes all the good topics and blogs enough for the both of us. But really, I've just been lazy. I've also felt like blog posts needed to cover interesting topics or be generous in content. Clearly, from this post, I'm changing my mind about this (since it is neither interesting nor long).

In January I moved from the visa line into ACS (American Citizen Services). I now spend my mornings helping American citizens (Amcits) renew their passports (for Amcits living in Costa Rica) or get emergency passports (for Amcits who had theirs' stolen). I see fewer boobs (see last post) but get yelled at just as much. It's quite different from visa work, and rewarding in a unique way. I like helping people, and especially cheering up Amcits who've had a rough turn of events on their vacations.

Passport adjudication is easier than visas, because the requirements are a lot more “documentary” (do you have proof of citizenship & identity?) and rely less on my judgment. Because I’m not so focused on judging the case, I can invest more emotionally in each case. I’m also speaking English to fellow Americans. All this to say that even though I saw and talked with more people doing visas, ACS feels more customer service oriented.

Can I say something about illegal immigration? No, not that kind. I’m talking about Americans who come and live and work illegally in Costa Rica. It’s amazing how easily we’ll flaunt another country’s laws when it doesn’t cost us anything, but get so up in arms about the same thing in our own country. I ask every American living in Costa Rica if they have their residency, followed by “why not?” (usually). The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “they always let me in without it.” There has been an increase in Amcit arrests for immigration violations. Hopefully these folks will get their acts together and I won’t be visiting them in jail.

This turned out a little longer than I thought.