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The Dungeon in San Juan’s Fort San Cristobal


Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

The Dungeon in San Juan’s Fort San Cristobal

Nickie Phillips

Guest post by Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD Included in the San Juan National Historic Site is Fort San Cristobal, also known as the Castillo de San Cristobal.  This originated as a Spanish fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico to protect against attacks on the city.  Today, the 27-acre is part of a standard day trip city tour, and has guided tours by park personnel. There is something to see (or, actually, to have some difficulty seeing) other than the breathtaking harbor and city views, tunnel systems and exhibits of authentic military attire.  There is a dungeon.

As a cub criminal defense attorney in Mineola (Nassau County, New York), I would spend my lunch times conferring with incarcerated clients who had been brought to the holding cells of the County Courthouse. Accused defendants, court officers, legal aid lawyers and public defenders alike had to contend with an onslaught of bright lights, clanking sounds, shouting prisoners, unsavory smells.  During this time, defendants would dine on baloney sandwiches and lawyers would whisper with clients through bars.

It was with this in mind that I took special interest in the dungeon at San Cristobal.  In this dark, isolated place, some 287 prisoners were kept – one at a time.  All but 3 committed suicide in 10-90 days (and according to our guide, a fair number did not last the first night, recollecting the daily bet depicted in the film The Shawshank Redemption, minus the socialized cohort of prisoners).

I note that our guide took us into the 12-foot long holding cell and then briefly walked out and clanged the metal bar door shut.   The immediate sweltering heat (back in the day, when a cherry wood door was used, the sealed entombment was believed to have reached well over 100 degrees at any one time) was stifling, the darkness unsettling (even with dimmed emergency lights) and the sense of isolation engulfing – even though there were a half-dozen colleagues present.  Everyone reached for their bottled water – several thought of the guide’s comment that subsistence was a half a loaf of bread and “some” water each day.

Only three men survived this diabolical dungeon, expressly used as a living death penalty box for the felonious. One was a British army captain, who survived 10 years. The second was a Spanish spy, who adjusted to the dark sufficiently to begin creating “organic” paints from the cell and painting a mural (which survives, ironically, due to the lack of light exposure) during his 15 years.  The third was a cardinal of Spain who had stabbed and killed a 16-year-old girl, precipitating a scandal that angered the King to the point of imposing the extraordinary imprisonment for this former cleric, who survived some 21 years.

As for the other 284 prisoners, all kept one-by-one in isolation, who committed suicide? They did so by running the 12-foot length of the dungeon and slamming their heads into the fort wall. Cruel and inhuman punishment, indeed.

For more information or to arrange a visit, go here.

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College, where she was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year.