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Haitian Prison Conditions Deteriorate in Aftermath of Massive Earthquake

by Holly Cooper

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the island nation of Haiti.
Well-known are the catastrophic numbers of victims left in its wake, leaving hundreds of thousands of people entombed in rubble and over one million homeless. For many of Haiti’s prisoners, however, the earthquake bequeathed a momentous opportunity to escape. Over 5,000 Haitian prisoners escaped in the aftermath of the disaster, including all 4,125 prisoners from the National Penitentiary, Haiti’s largest prison.

In Haiti’s Les Cayes prison, however, escaping prisoners met a different fate – a brutal massacre by guards. Prisoners packed inside overcrowded cells, originally built in the nineteenth century, began to scream in fear for their lives during the earthquake’s violent shaking. The guards refused the prisoners’ basic demand that they be allowed to sleep in the prison courtyard during the aftershocks. Instead, the guards retaliated against the most vocal prisoners, packing them in overcrowded cells and refusing them bathroom “privileges.” Prisoners responded by throwing buckets of urine at the guards and escaping their cells.

To quell the unrest, a week after the earthquake the police and guards used tear gas and massacred between ten to fifteen prisoners. Even prisoners trying to surrender were shot in their locked cells. The officials then buried the bodies in unmarked graves and burned the evidence. The prison’s investigator alleged a prisoner ringleader had murdered the victims but this was refuted by an extensive New York Times investigative report, witnesses and a commission inquiry. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.32].

Fourteen prison guards and police officers were charged with murder, attempted murder and other offenses, and twenty-one officers who fled were tried in absentia.

“This trial is historic,” said lead prosecutor Jean-Marie Salomon. “This is the first time in Les Cayes we’ve held our own police officers accountable for their abuses. What is decided will be an example for those who come after us of how we respect our citizens.”

The events at Les Cayes prison brought Haiti’s criminal justice system into the foreground and exposed to the world the dark underbelly of Haiti’s prison conditions.
Photos of the prisons reveal what Haitian prisoners already know – that they are egregiously overcrowded. Approximately 8,000 prisoners are held in detention facilities designed to only hold 2,450 persons. The most crowded prison in Hinche holds more than ten times its design capacity. The average space allotted is .3 meters per person, meaning that prisoners take turns sleeping on the floor and many must stay standing for excruciating lengths of time, with temperatures in the cells reaching as high as 105 degrees. Prisoners also lack access to clean water and many prisoners have died of cholera – a horrific waterborne disease that can kill its host within hours yet whose treatment can be as simple as rehydration therapy. Food and clean water are so scarce in prisons that many prisoners rely on food and water from family to survive. Children prisoners are mixed with adults and women are not always fully segregated from men.

Some commentators have likened Haitian prison conditions to the horrific conditions of the slave ships that crossed the Middle Passage. See, e.g., Auguste v. Ridge, 395 F.3d 123, 129 (3d Cir. 2005) (detailing “brutal and harsh conditions” in Haiti’s prisons). For the Haitian people such a historical regression is particularly sensitive, being the first Black Republic in the world after enslaved persons revolted and liberated themselves from their oppressors. In pursuit of equality and dignity, Haitians reclaimed the indigenous name of Haiti for their nation and cast off the former imperial name of Saint-Domingue. Moreover, in creating the flag for the new republic, Jean Jacques Dessalines, a Haitian revolutionary leader, ripped the white center from the French colonial flag and sewed back together only its red and blue portions – an unequivocal symbolic gesture that the new Haiti rejected white oppression. To equate anything in Haiti with the conditions of enslaved people is a monumental accusation.

The conditions in Haiti’s prisons are miserable, however analogized, and overcrowding has worsened since the earth-quake. On this author’s visit to the Mirebalais prison, prisoners were so crammed into the cells that limbs protruded from cell doors and windows. Men sat perched in high window sills hoping to catch fresh air while the men below were so cramped that their bodies were tangled together. Looking into the dark cells, one could only make out the silhouettes of men and only the whites of their eyes were visible.

After adjusting one’s eyes to the darkness, however, one could make out countless faces of men sitting completely silent in the dark, half-naked in squelching heat – some waiting for years in these cells just for an initial hearing. More appalling is that children as young as 13 years old are among the faces. No bathrooms or sinks are available in the cells, and prisoners get only two bathroom breaks a day. The guards treat the water with bleach and tablets, and put it in buckets near the cells where prisoners have to request a drink. If a prisoner needs to meet with his attorney, no confidential space is allotted for the meeting. No rehabilitative or recreation activity exists.

Part of the overcrowding problem lies in the lack of adequate criminal procedural protections in Haiti. Eighty to ninety percent of Haiti’s prisoners are pretrial detainees who wait anywhere from one to five years for a trial. Bond or bail for pretrial detainees is not a possibility and plea bargaining is non-existent. Thus, most Haitians must endure lengthy prison time before any finding of guilt and are not given full credit for time served in pretrial detention.

One remarkable, yet often unnoted, aspect of Haitian prisons is that Haiti has the lowest percentage of prisoners anywhere in the Caribbean. Experts estimate that Haiti has about 8,000 prisoners and a population of almost ten million, meaning prisoners constitute only .0008% of the population. Thus, while the conditions are deplorable, the low incarceration rates are quite distinct from the United States, which has an incarceration rate of around 1%.

On January 19, 2012, a verdict was announced in the trial of the 14 police officers and prison guards charged in the Les Cayes prison massacre. Eight were found guilty and received sentences ranging from 2 to 13 years. The former warden of the Les Cayes prison, Sylvestre Larack, who had been promoted after the massacre, was sentenced to 7 years.

“The decision of the judge is his expression of the truth,” said Judge Ezekiel Vaval, who presided over the case. “There are other versions that exist but this is mine. And that is the law.”

Defense attorneys had argued that the officers and guards were simply doing their jobs. “But killing people was not doing their job,” noted Haiti’s ombudsman, Florence Elie.

The verdict was an anomaly in a nation where law enforcement officials are rarely held accountable, even for murder.

Sources: Republic of Haiti Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, Oct. 3, 2011; New York Times; U.S. Department of State 2010 Human Rights Report: Haiti;; Wilentz, Amy, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier

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