Prisoner number 1713: From penitentiary to published author

Now a well-known writer, José León Sánchez was for 19 years known by a number –1713. It was his prisoner number for the nearly two decades he languished on San Lucas Island of the west coast of Costa Rica. For 116 years the island was a place of anguish. In the early years felons were never without their leg irons, and escape was all but impossible from this notorious penitentiary just a few nautical miles from Costa Rica’s mainland.

León Sánchez arrived in 1950 an illiterate felon. Paroled in 1969, he emerged a writer who would receive international acclaim and who in 1999 would finally be absolved of the crime he always maintained he never committed.

The best known of his 27 books is a novel based on his experiences on San Lucas, La Isla de los Hombres Solos, or The Island of Lonely Men (the English version, God Was Looking the Other Way, is out of print).

León Sánchez has on his record 2 escapes (he was recaptured on the mainland), and 17 attempted escapes. He also learned to read and write in jail, and self-published his first books there, putting together a primitive press from instructions in an old Popular Mechanics.

The prison was finally shut down in 1989. Developers wanted to turn the island into a tourist resort, complete with golf course and condos, but the preservationist forces won out and San Lucas recently became one of Costa Rica’s newest national parks. The dilapidated prison buildings will remain to remind people of the island’s past, the island flora and fauna will be left undisturbed, and the indigenous burial grounds will not be paved over by the kind of helter-skelter development increasingly common in other parts of Costa Rica.