‘Like living in a concentration camp’: Haitian prisons run out of food and water

·6 min read
Dieu Nalio Chery/AP Photo

Prison inmates in Haiti were already facing horrendous conditions: overcrowding, prolonged pretrial detention, poor sanitation and shuttered courtrooms due to an ongoing strike by court clerks that began on April 12 over poor pay and working conditions.

Now they can add one more thing: lack of food and water.

“The situation is alarming,” said Marie Yolène Gilles, who runs the human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere, or Eyes Wide Open Foundation. “I’ve spoken to the directors of several prisons and they have told me that their cupboards are empty. The prisoners who are suffering from all this are calling me day and night, complaining that they do not have any food. When there is food, it’s not enough to feed everybody. There is no water.”

Gilles and other human rights advocates say the food and water scarcity has been ongoing for at least three weeks, but has worsened in recent days. It affects all of Haiti’s prison system, where more than 80% of the 11,152 people currently incarcerated depend on the government to feed them. This includes inmates at the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison, where there was a deadly jailbreak last year, and the National Penitentiary, where the walls are visibly crumbling.

The urgency of the situation has led some of the 18 Colombians jailed as suspects in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, and who are in the National Penitentiary, to issue an SOS appeal in a series of text messages, shared with the Miami Herald, and in a two-minute video from behind bars.

“Hoy no hay comida otra ves,” one of the prisoners wrote in Spanish to say, “Today, again, there is no food.”

In the video, five of the ex-soldiers speak out about their situation, with one breaking down in tears, crying in Spanish that they “will die from hunger.” Another, appealing to “the whole world,” says that it has been 72 hours since they ate, took a bath or were let out of their cells. He added, while pointing to the floor, that they had to go to the bathroom in their cell.

“We are in a country where they practically … want to kill us. They want to kill us,” he said. “Please help us.”

A third former Colombian soldier complains on the video that they have spent 10 months imprisoned without access to an attorney and that “in this country there is no justice system.”

“We are closed in, isolated and without lawyers,” he said, jotting off the Haitian government’s violations. “No food, no water.”

Jose Espinosa, an advocate for the veterans from Colombia, said he is very concerned about the situation.

“They have gone two days without food. Today would be the third,” he said. “The situation inside the jail is very critical. A mutiny is very likely and [the Colombians] fear that mutiny could be used to attempt to kill them.”

Espinosa said he and his veterans nonprofit group, which has been working to get the Colombians transferred to a third country, do not know the intentions of the prison guards or the Haitian government. “That is why we fear that it is possible that they would use this situation to hurt them or silence them.”

Neither Haiti’s justice minister, Berto Dorcé, nor the head of the prison administration, Pierre Rene Antoine, could be reached for comment.

The food and water shortage is affecting everyone in the prison system, say Port-au-Prince-based human rights advocates, one of whom added that there are also deportees from the United States who are today imprisoned and going without a meal because they have no one to bring food to them.

“The percentage of people who have individuals bringing them food on a regular basis isn’t even 5%,” said Pierre Esperance, who heads the National Human Rights Defense Network.

The shortages, along with the reduction in prison visits and recreation activities, Esperance said, is a recipe for a prison revolt or a prison break, the latter of which has been a threat for months.

Following a visit to St. Marc’s civil prison on Tuesday, the regional director for the country’s Office of Citizen Protection, Philogene Baptise, issued a report saying that a judicial system blocked by the clerks’ strike, food rationing and sanitary problems have left detainees virtually deprived of all their rights.

Baptiste quoted a government official in the area saying he was concern about a “riot” due to the deteriorating prison conditions.

“The small warehouses that are used to store food for detainees have been empty for several weeks. Reached by telephone, the head of the prison, Inspector Jean Sala Augustave promises to speed up procedures with the central administration,” Baptiste wrote in a report shared with the Miami Herald. “At the same time, other steps are under way.”

Baptiste noted that on Tuesday visits were made to some entrepreneurs in the city to find food for the detainees.

“This is the reality experienced by the civil prison of Saint-Marc. In addition to this food problem, infamous and nauseating odors invade the space prison. Basically, poor management has led to feces piled up in plastic bags in the second courtyard of the prison,” he wrote. “Remember that this space is used by prisoners to wash. So they face huge risks of contamination.”

The government prosecutor, Grand Pierre Estimé, he said, promised to resolve the situation.

“If the minister of justice wants to tackle the issue of insecurity in the country, he needs to resolve the prison issue,” said Renan Hédouville, who directs the national ombudsman office in Port-au-Prince, adding that if there is a revolt, “kidnappers, rapists will take to the streets to continue to commit crimes.”

Hédouville blames the food shortage on government bureaucracy and the lack of financial autonomy by the prison administration, which depends on the Haiti National Police for requisitions from the finance ministry.

Of the 11,152 inmates nationwide, 3,663 are in the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Hédouville said. Of that number only 363 have been sentenced, meaning the rest are waiting to go before a judge to have their cases heard.

Haiti’s court system has been shut down since April 12, the day court clerks in the country’s 18 jurisdictions went on a nationwide strike over pay and working conditions.

Hédouville fears that if the food and water shortage isn’t quickly resolved, “a lot of people” will die in the coming days.

“This is a huge human rights violation,” he said. “We believe the only way to resolve this is to allow [the prison administration] to have financial autonomy.”

There is also a lack of basic medication. There have already been confirmed cases of tuberculosis and COVID-19 in prison, which last year led to the death of at least one of the 44 people initially jailed in the Moïse assassination.

The situation, Gilles, the human rights advocate said, is unacceptable.

“There is no real political will to improve the conditions of the people inside the prisons,“ Gilles said. “The people who are behind bars today it’s like they are living in a concentration camp.”

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