by Jayson Hawkins
Haiti’s recent history reads like an endless tragedy of natural disasters and political upheavals. In between devastating hurricanes and earthquakes, a presidential assassination and gang wars paint a picture of a failed state. Violence regularly halts traffic in or out of the nation’s capital. Many residents rely on international aid for food and shelter. Yet many Americans don’t know their tax dollars also fund a more dubious humanitarian “need” – building more prisons.
With around 0.1% of its citizens behind bars, Haiti has the lowest incarceration rate in the Caribbean – and only a tiny fraction of the U.S. rate. As if to reduce this glaring imbalance, America has funded the creation of four new prisons in Haiti since 2016. While at least one of the lockups replaced an older facility severely damaged by an earthquake, U.S. foreign aid has built more prison cells than it has housing units for the 99.9% of Haitians who are free.
Almost as perplexing is that the largest American-funded prison, a 66,000-square-foot structure in Cabaret, was designed specifically for women, who are less than a tenth of the Haitian prison population. The few hundred women incarcerated at the new facility, many merely for marijuana use, are encouraged to ease their frustrations by taking courses in cooking and sewing. As Jean Danton Leger, Haiti’s Attorney General, chauvinistically explained, “The government understands that it’s not possible for those women who entered the prison with empty heads to leave it in the same state.”
Haitian prisons have more serious prison problems than a lack of cells. According to a United Nations Security Council report, 54 prisoners in Haiti suffered malnutrition-related deaths in the first four months of 2022. At least eight more starved to death in the next two months after a prison in Les Cayes ran out of food – an eerie reminder of a January 2010 protest against conditions in Les Cayes, when at least a dozen prisoners were killed and 40 others injured. [See: PLN, Nov. 2020, p.32.]
“Whoever can help should help immediately because the prisoners are in need,” said the city’s government commissioner, Ronald Richemond.
Haitian law requires that prisoners be fed just twice a day, but those meals are rarely more than a bowl of rice with some sort of meat mixed in with water – and even that has been missing lately, leaving prisoners to depend completely on loved ones to bring food and water over roads regularly blocked by gang violence.
Pierre Esperance of the National Human Rights Defense Network said the crisis “is getting worse every day. They can only fix the problem for one or two weeks. After that, the problem will continue. Today, it’s Les Cayes. Tomorrow, it could be somewhere else.”
Building prisons with taxpayer dollars is not the only U.S. solution to Haiti’s bleak situation. On February 10, 2023, the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States sponsored a resolution outlining other ways member states can assist Haiti– including the possibility of sending a police force to provide security and stability. But this multinational force would not just “impose peace,” some delegates fear. The resolution also revealed that the U.S. and partner nations have provided more than $90 million dollars in the last 18 months to the Haitian National Police.
Sources: Caribbean National Weekly, The Guardian, News Junkie Post, WNCN
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