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7489: Haiti's jails are uncommonly harsh... (fwd)

From: nozier <nozier@tradewind.net>

  Published Sunday, March 25, 2001
  In a land where misery is  common, Haiti's jails are  uncommonly
harsh, hidden        corners of darkness rarely seen by outsiders.
 Recently, a Miami Herald reporter and photographer were  given unusual
access to the prisons. Their report follows.

 PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In Haiti, there is no capital  punishment. But
for many inmates, getting thrown in jail is a death sentence.  In one
month this year, 11 inmates died in the Penitentier  National, the
nation's largest prison. Some died from              malnutrition and
lack of sunlight, the rest from tuberculosis and AIDS. There is no
medication at the prison clinic, and little medical  care. Beds are in
short supply, and only the inmates with influence get assigned one.
Other patients crawl onto any available space, and that often means a
cold cement floor.  The men who become too sick to treat are put out in
the courtyard, where they die, often alone.
 ``The world has to intervene here very fast,'' said Jean-Paul  Lupien,
a French Canadian who consults for the United Nations Development
Program.  Lupien bows his head as he stands in the shade of a tree inhe
prison's courtyard. A former warden in his native Canada  for more than
two decades, Lupien is an authority on jails.  Since his retirement, he
has been working as a consultant,  trying to improve jails in Africa and
the Caribbean.
 Haiti's prisons are the worst he has ever seen.When Lupien got to Haiti
five years ago, he found a prison system still suffering from years of
control by the Haitian   army and budgets controlled by the military.
Cells were  without roofs. Prisoners were not fed. Inmates were not
registered. They didn't know their status, and neither did officials.
The people running the prisons didn't know how  many people they had
inside. Human rights violations were  constant, and inmates were
beaten.``Those prisons were death traps,'' he said.
 The return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994  brought a brief
period of improvement for Haiti's prison  system. Aristide did away with
the army that had sent him
 into exile and put the prisons under the Ministry of Justice.  But by
1998, after he finished his term and President René  Préval took over,
domestic politics obliged Préval to dissolve   parliament and take other
steps deemed undemocratic, curtailing international aid. As a result,
conditions once again began to deteriorate.
  Three years later, they are approaching a crisis level, Lupien  said.
 International aid has stopped coming because of continued  turmoil in
Haiti. In addition, corruption and bad management  are taking a toll.
Inmates complain that guards beat them -- often with
impunity.Corruption, not just malnutrition, is killing inmates. By the
time a side of beef bought for the prison reaches the kitchen,  only
bones are left. As it makes its way, about a dozen people, from the
supplier to the cook, shave off a piece.  Little is left for inmates.  A
recent survey done by Lupien for his agency shows the      jails don't
provide enough calories to sustain life. `And the food is lousy, too,''
said Winston Cilla, a   29-year-old man from Miami who was sharing a
cell with   nine others in ``solitary'' confinement. He didn't want to
go  back to his regular cell, which he shares with two dozen     others.
``The water they give you to drink is undrinkable. I'm         telling
you this, but I know I'm going to get beat up. I don't   care.''
  Cilla said he was picked up after getting involved in a   phone-card
scam. He's been in jail for 11 months.  ``I can't even make a phone call
to call my family,'' said Cilla,         who was barefoot in his
cell.Inside Haiti's jails, internal rules of conduct are ignored;
guards aren't disciplined after inmates accuse them of  brutality. Only
one person is charged with investigating  complaints for the entire
prison system. Yet, there is no outcry about the conditions because
prisoners have no rights in Haiti. The largest of the nation's 19
prisons is the Penitentier   National, built by Americans in 1918 during
the U.S.    occupation, which followed a collapse of Haiti's political
and  financial system. It's an imposing structure in the middle of  this
city, its bleached mustard-colored walls a stone's throw   from the
presidential palace and cabinet ministers' offices.  Its thick walls
rise high above the surrounding poor  neighborhood of wooden homes and
small businesses.       Mechanics, steel sculptors and other merchants
have   established a cooperative relationship with their neighbor and
set up sidewalk displays along the jail's walls to show off  their
 The Penitentier is an appropriate metaphor for Haiti. It was  built to
hold only 1,000 prisoners, but now holds 2,096. It is bursting at the
seams  Like other prisons around the country, it is a place to put
people until they either die or finally see a judge. That can
sometimes take years because of a lack of judges and   lawyers and
because the administrative system is so lax   that files often are lost.
There is no attempt to rehabilitate
  prisoners.It is not uncommon for an inmate to spend five years in jail
because there is no such thing as bail. The offense for which   the
inmate is jailed might ultimately merit only a 30-day  sentence.
Prisoners complain they spend more than 23 hours a day in          their
cramped cells. Fights often break out, and they  become brutal. One
inmate, strolling in his underwear,    showed warden Jean-Daniel René a
three-inch gash on one          testicle. Another inmate had bitten off
a chunk of it. The   wound had begun to abcess by the time officials saw
it and  sent him to an infirmary. ``That's the way it is here,'' said
Clifford Larose, head of   Haiti's prison system. He acknowledges the
system is ridden with flaws, but says he is doing the best with what he
Not all inmates are treated alike, though. Ricot Mathieu receives
preferential treatment because he is  a former soldier, and most of the
prison guards are former  military.
  Unlike other inmates, Mathieu looks clean and wears a polo  shirt,
khaki slacks and a baseball cap. His shoes are shined. His cellmates
wear the clothes they arrived in, which after a  few months of hard
scrubbing and drying out in the harsh  sun, turn into rags. When a
shipment of donated good  comes in, some prisoners are given sandals;
the others  either go barefoot or make do with what they can get from
home or family.
   Mathieu spends his day walking around the compound, delivering
messages and dropping off packages from inmates' friends and family. For
company, he plays with two   black cats he keeps as pets. He feeds them
mice he captures in a cage he made out of scrap metal. Mathieu is
getting out this month. He'll be thrilled to leave  the windowless old
chapel he shares with 23 other inmates.
Under successive dictatorships, political prisoners were held   here
instead of with other prisoners. ``There is no space to walk inside,''
said Mathieu, who is  serving a six-year sentence for murder, but claims
he is    innocent in the death of a man who was being questioned by
colleagues. ``Once you walk in the cell, you have to lay down or sit on
your bed.''  ``Bedding'' would be more like it: Some of it is nothing
more than a piece of worn cardboard, a thin protection from the cold
cement floor. The more fortunate residents of the cell  own a slim layer
of foam. Some inmates have nothing.
The prisoners spend most of their time looking vacantly   through the
rusting bars of the chapel onto a courtyard.  ``This is not hell,'' said
an inmate who would not give his       name. ``This is the sewers of
hell.''   As most prisoners and officials will attest, the justice
 system itself demands the most urgent attention. Only 818 men out of
3,063 in the country's jails have been convicted of  crimes. The same
applies for 23 out of the 167 women held,  and 14 minors out of 79 who
are in jail. The lack of bail accounts in part for the overcrowding.
The reason for no bail is both historical and practical. More    than
200 years ago, in the colonial era, some slaves, later   known as
maroons, would escape the harsh conditions of    French plantations by
disappearing into the mountains. The  same can happen with inmates now,
Lupien explained.
``It's so easy to hide here,'' Lupien said. ``Judges, though  well
intentioned, if they want to see someone in court again,  have to keep
them in jail.''  Some facilities are literally falling apart.
  Take Fort National, where Haiti keeps its women and children inmates.
The potholed road that leads to the fort spirals past some of  the most
crowded homes in this city, past broken water  pipes and piles of
garbage, then levels as it reaches the old  fort at the top of the hill.

Built as a fortress by rebellious slaves to guard against an  invasion
by defeated French troops more than two centuries  ago, some of Fort
National's old cannons and        turn-of-the-century guns point toward
the ocean to the west;  others are trained on the presidential palace.
There are no cells at Fort National, only four long drab and  dirty
buildings around a small paved courtyard. The stench of   urine hangs
around the buildings as if the walls were drenched in it.
`It's not there all the time,'' offered a sheepish Marie Magg Gracieux,
who has been reluctant to show visitors around   the jail because of the
smell. A company hired to clear the  sewage left without completing the
job, explained Gracieux,   a former lawyer and teacher who has been
running the  facility for the past five years, since it was turned into
a  prison. "We're working on this problem.''
  Like almost everything else in Haiti, much of what ails the  penal
system could be cured with money. There's little of it  -- only $2.5
million to run the country's jails and care for its inmates.``We have no
problems with the detainees,'' Gracieux says.`We just don't have the
resources to give them what they    should have.''  Fort National has no
running water. Inmates use water  collected in a catchment basin to
bathe. While the men at       Penitentier National bathe in the open,
the women at the fort  get a bathroom -- a hole in the floor that gets
backed up for weeks at a time, and a dank corner in which to bathe.
 Inmate Jacqueline Charles said she cannot drink the water.Her arms are
covered with splotches she said were caused  by it.Charles, a
businesswoman, said she has been in jail for  several months, accused of
theft. She said she couldn't find  the courage to call the lawyer who
takes care of her  business. ``I'm ashamed to be here,'' said Charles,
 She has not seen her four children since being jailed.
 Another woman, who would not give her name, said she has   not seen her
children for three years. She doesn't know  where they are or what
happened to them.  At the end of the courtyard, up a flight of steps, is
the former  ``Salle des Officiers.'' That was the dormitory for
officers  when the military used the fort as a communications center  in
the 1970s.  Now it is where the boys are.
  The oldest there is Rudy Joseph. He's 16. His bunk is near   the door,
with a fan, a box of corn flakes on a ledge and a  13-inch
black-and-white television set at the foot of the bed.  All are gifts
from his mother, he said.  Rudy has been in jail for 23 months.
  ``I still don't know what I've been accused of,'' Rudy said.  At 11,
Jean-Baptiste Rodrigue is the youngest. Chest and   feet bare,
Jean-Baptiste stood in the middle of the hall,  picking at his nails,
head bowed. He's been in the jail since  July for ``fighting,'' he said.
`All I do is sleep,'' he said.He doesn't have a mattress on his bed, so
he bunks with  another boy.   The ones without family to look after
them, like  Jean-Baptiste, have ripped the mattresses an international
agency supplied the jails and used the fabric and filling as toilet
paper. The children don't have toothpaste or soap, either. There is no
school inside, no books, no toys. So they  spend most of their time
locked up, playing cards,  roughhousing, with a few moments outside in
the yard.  The jail provides a breakfast of cornmeal, sometimes with
herring or vegetables mixed in. Dinner is mostly rice and  beans, rarely
with meat. Some inmates get their family to  supplement the jail fare by
bringing them lunch at the jails.  Beginning at noon, family members and
friends of inmates  form a line in front of the gates. The guards make
them open  their canteens and taste the food before passing it on
inside.  Several prisoners have been poisoned.

 When she first got to Fort National, Jessie Thompson was  shocked by
the company she had to keep. ``They have   bugs, big, huge ones,'' said
Thompson, an American caught
 running cocaine from Haiti to the United States who has  been awaiting
formal charges in Fort National for the last 10  months. ``They have
mice, rats and lizards. My son has a lizard and I remember telling him
to keep it away from me.  Now they are running all over the place here.
``When you say something about it, they say you're not in  New York. You
have to get used to things here.''   Unlike most of the inmates,
Thompson, who has two boys in   the United States, has a lawyer, whom
she has seen twice.
  ``Back in August, she promised that I would be released if I paid
$4,000. I'm still here.''
  There is no privacy inside Thompson's building, or any of the  others.
Bunk beds are stacked up close, with only enough  room between them for
an adult to walk sideways.
 This place has its own social hierarchy, its own caste system, Thompson
said. She has the upper bunk in the corner away from the bathroom.
That's where the cocaine         mules are kept, the dozen or so women
who have some  money, or know where to get enough to pay a lawyer or
buy  some favors. That section is called Petion-Ville, named after  the
city in the hills that is home to Haiti's monied elite. The beds closest
to the bathroom, where the stench is  strongest, are in Cite Soleil,
named after one of this city's   slums.    Distractions are limited to
the women combing each other's  hair. The state provides literacy
classes and brings a seamstress  to teach the women to sew. The women
are just as  interested in the English lessons Thompson provides. In
return, they're teaching her Creole. She has gained the  respect of the
other inmates, she said, but ``it's horrible   here.''  Like in every
jail, Thompson said, the women fight ``over      girlfriends, jealousy,
theft. That sort of thing.''  Two other buildings, along with an
administrative office, a   room where the guards change clothes and a
small clinic        with four beds ring the courtyard. A smaller room
was  supposed to be reserved for underage girls, but adults have   been
mixed in because of the space crunch.
One woman in the building complained she was beaten up  by guards. ``It
used to happen, but it hasn't happened in a while since  the human
rights agencies have been coming here,''  Thompson said.  Haitian jail
officials like Gracieux are well aware of the   system's shortcomings.
Aristide and his wife visited the facility on March 7,       commuting
the sentence of seven women to celebrate  Women's Day. He has promised
to make judicial reform one  of his priorities during his five-year
term, a crucial time for
 Haiti to break out of its cycle of political chaos and poverty.  The
allegations of abuse will be among his toughest  challenges.   At the
Penitentier National, Herve Lariviere shows burns   marks on his upper
arm and chest. Picked up for cocaine  trafficking, he's been in pretrial
detention for 16 months. He  has been beaten, he said.
 ``Yesterday I couldn't pee,'' said Lariviere, 36, who said he  also
suffers from diabetes.
  René, the warden, doesn't dispute Lariviere's whole story,  only to a
certain degree.
 ``If they say they've been beaten up, then that's true,'' said René
matter-of-factly. ``We may lightly hit an inmate who  doesn't respond to
directions, but I don't believe we beat
people up. We don't do that here anymore.''