[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
7489: Haiti's jails are uncommonly harsh... (fwd)
From: nozier <email@example.com>
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
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,
``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
``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.''