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In 1979, inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s government that exposed the prison’s overcrowding and other problems, leading to its 2004 closure. But inmate relocation was slow, and the government paid $250 million in federal fines in a 33-year-old legal fight.
Ivan Rios, the official overseeing the demolition from the former guards’ barracks, said plans call for saving some elements, including the prison facade, marked with the words "Hate the Crime and Pity the Criminal."
But Rios, interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Science, Research and Technology Trust, also called for turning the prison’s negative past into a positive future. The agency owns the former prison and the surrounding property, which is slated to be the site of a $196 million-dollar cancer treatment center scheduled to open in April 2016.
"We certainly believe that a collective memory of that magnitude involving negative things and death should give way to a collective memory of science, of progress, of innovation," Rios said.
One of the prison’s walls is currently being demolished, with backhoes eating into the peeling, bone-white structure. The government said it removed asbestos and lead at the site and demolished the prison’s former hospital and administrative offices nearby.
Belen said several people involved in the project were devastated to learn it was too expensive to save the entire prison.
"We all went into this project with hopes of restoring the building," she said. "But we all realized that it would be an irresponsible alternative in terms of security and cost."
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