Finding Freedom on “the Island of Lonely Men”
THE launch plowing through the light swells of the Gulf of Nicoya was not full. This was not due to a shortage of tourists though. Here on the Pacific shore of Costa Rica, the cloudless sky, emerald-green water, white sandy beaches, and swaying coconut palms never failed to attract those in pursuit of a tropical paradise. But I was not here on vacation—and neither were the other passengers.
“The Island of Lonely Men”
We were heading for San Lucas Island, a penal colony run by the Costa Rican Ministry of Justice. At one time, San Lucas Island was one of the most infamous prisons in Latin America. Hardened criminals made up most of its population, and those sent here soon learned the hard facts of survival. The authorities provided the bare necessities, while the inmates established their own pecking order and struggled to improve their personal lot. Often, those who tried to escape were swept out to sea by the strong currents, or they were killed by sharks.
In the early 1950’s, a former inmate of San Lucas Island, José León Sánchez, wrote a book based on his personal life in the penal colony. His blunt, brutal, but factual, story, La Isla de los Hombres Solos (The Island of Lonely Men), soon became a best-seller in Mexico and Central America. In Costa Rica it touched off a strong public outcry.
At the time, the government was in the process of modernizing its penal institutions. Emphasis was put on reform rather than punishment, and the death penalty was abolished. With the attention generated by Sánchez’ book, changes also came to San Lucas Island. Prisoners were taught cattle and swine raising, fishing, and other skills. They also raised cash crops for sale and were allowed to participate in the profit. Improvements were also made in the housing facilities. By the beginning of the 1960’s, San Lucas became a model reform center for minimum-security inmates.
As I stepped off the launch onto the small dock, I was well aware of the infamous history of the island. But I was here as a prison guard, not as a prisoner. I had joined the National Police Force when I was 18, and because I was big for my age, my first assignment was guard duty on San Lucas Island.
A Prisoner, yet Free
Raised by Catholic nuns and priests, I was always horrified by the thought of a burning hell. To me, the most important thing in life was to avoid ending up in hell. But I was perplexed to see that most people seemed to care very little about it. The priest might speak about it in class, but outside the classroom, no one wanted to talk about religion or the Bible. They claimed to believe in hellfire, but that did little to restrain their conduct.
The situation on San Lucas was not much different. Though many of the guards and inmates professed the same belief, it seemed to have little effect on them. Obscene speech and unclean practices were common. Once a fellow guard was caught smuggling marijuana onto the island and ended up an inmate himself! My immediate supervisor had a terrible temper and twice challenged rebellious inmates to a fistfight. Since I had time on my hands, I often thought deeply about the things I was observing on the island. As an inexperienced young man, I was confused and disillusioned.
One evening, Franklin, a trusted inmate, invited me to listen to a Bible discussion. Even though I was not too interested, a conversation soon developed.
“It must be difficult to be a prisoner and study the Bible,” I remarked. I never forgot Franklin’s reply.
“Physically I’m a prisoner,” he said, “but spiritually I’m free.”
How I wanted to understand that kind of freedom!
Witnesses on San Lucas
It turned out that Franklin was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. On Sundays, relatives and friends were allowed on the island. Often, two or three boats would bring as many as 30 Witnesses across the bay from the Puntarenas Congregation. Being new there, I was surprised to see the officials simply wave the Witnesses past the checkpoints while everyone else was thoroughly searched. Even more surprising to me was the fact that the Witnesses treated with respect inmates and guards alike and talked to everyone about their Bible-based message.
A few inmates had regular, personal Bible studies with the Witnesses on these Sundays. Franklin was one of them, and there was something about him that impressed me. I learned that Franklin had been sentenced to a 12-year prison term for killing a business competitor. In prison he had studied accounting by correspondence. Because he did not drink, smoke, or use drugs, he was put in charge of the prison library. Later, he was given his own cabin and even more responsibility.
While still in school, Franklin had had some friends who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He noted that they never got involved in squabbles or fights, even when others picked on them. Though he did not take religion seriously, he knew the Witnesses to be a peaceful and morally clean people. So when he heard that there was an Atalaya (“Watchtower,” as some called Jehovah’s Witnesses) among the inmates, he became curious.
One day before lunch, Franklin saw a prisoner sitting alone outside the dining hall. His neat appearance made Franklin inquire if he was the Atalaya. When being told that he was, Franklin’s first reaction was: “Why are you here?” The man explained that he had first been sentenced to the Central Penitentiary in San José, the capital, and had begun to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses while there. After being transferred to San Lucas, he continued his studies with a Witness from Puntarenas. In time he was baptized right there at Coco Beach on San Lucas Island.
That meeting was a turning point in Franklin’s life. From then on, whenever the Witnesses came to visit, he would engage them in lively discussions. He also began to talk to other inmates and guards about the things he was learning. His conduct, dress, and grooming began to improve. Both he and his baptized companion gained the respect of everyone.
Eventually, Franklin’s 12-year sentence was reduced to 3 years and 4 months. He and his companion kept studying the Bible. In spite of the bad prison atmosphere, they were happy, and their faces showed it. Evidently they noticed that I was different from the other guards, since I did not share in dirty jokes and obscene jesting. So they invited me to their cabins for Bible discussions. What I heard from them and from the Witness visitors was very interesting to me, especially about the condition of the dead and that there really is no burning hell. I was given a copy of the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life and started to read it. Although I did not realize it then, seeds of truth that would later produce fruit were being sown in my heart.
True Freedom at Last
After leaving the National Police Force, I lived briefly in Miami, Florida. One day a workmate began to speak to me about the Bible. His speech, dress, and grooming told me that I had met up with Jehovah’s Witnesses once again. This brought back memories of San Lucas Island, and I asked him why no one seemed interested in discussing spiritual things. He gave me a brief answer and suggested a discussion in my home. This led to a regular Bible study and later to dedication and baptism.
I returned to Costa Rica in 1975 and attended a district convention in San José. I am still not sure who was more surprised when Franklin and I met by chance at the convention. He was now physically free and also baptized. When I left San Lucas, Franklin had been unsure about how strong my interest in the Bible was. But here we were, former prisoner and ex-guard, truly united in the freedom that comes from worship of the true God Jehovah!
For some the penal “Island of Lonely Men” meant only unsavory memories. For me it meant the beginning of spiritual freedom. Now, as a Christian elder, I share in bringing liberty to those who think that they are free but who are really imprisoned as were those men I once used to guard.—As told by David Robinson.
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