In Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, where a very serious political, social and economic crisis has been going on for some time, prison conditions are further worsening: they are often overcrowded, prisoners are left without water, food or care when they are sick. To make the situation worse is the widespread violence caused by criminal gangs, now very strong in the country, which make the few forms of assistance on which the prisoners have been able to count so far even more difficult.
According to lawyer Arnel Rémy, coordinator of the Association of Lawyers for the Defense of Human Rights of Haiti, a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding in the country’s prisons.
In Haiti, a country with about 11 million inhabitants, there are 17 prisons, 5 of which are under construction, overcrowded and with prison conditions considered largely below international standards. The Associated Press told how inmates of the National Penitentiary of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, live: it is the largest prison in the country and houses around 4,000 inmates even though it was built to house around 800.
Inside there are dozens of prisoners suffering from tuberculosis left with little care: many arrested for minor crimes, such as theft. In general, detainees are not given enough water or food, and many of them reported that they sleep standing up because the cells are overcrowded and they don’t have enough space to lie down. Others have told of defecating in common buckets, inside the cell, and that very often the prison is without electricity, sometimes for months, due to failures in the current generators which cannot be repaired quickly.
The poor conditions in Haiti’s prisons are nothing new, and they are talked about cyclically. Last year, for example, the government of Haiti freed more than 70 prisoners convicted of minor crimes after videos circulating online showing their poor health. Much more often, however, the conditions of prisoners remain unknown and ignored.
In Haiti, more than 80 percent of the over 11,000 total prisoners are in pre-trial detention: but trial times are very long and according to various human rights experts and lawyers who have dealt with their conditions over time, it could take years before they are heard by a judge and put on trial. Numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, where the authorities detain people on unspecified charges, have also been documented.
A study published last December by researchers at a Florida university, and based on the conditions of over 1,000 inmates in two prisons in Haiti, including the National Penitentiary, concluded that most of them were placed on a diet from less than 500 calories a day, less than half of the daily requirement, and that more than 75 percent were at risk of a series of pathologies also linked to a lack of vitamins.
According to data from the United Nations, 185 prisoners died in Haiti last year, many of them as a result of malnutrition. 20 have died this year alone.
According to various experts in that area, the numbers could increase due to the consequences of the country’s political and social crisis, which the numerous criminal gangs active in the country have been taking advantage of for some time: these gangs have become very influential, and in recent years they have exploited of alliances and links with Haitian politicians to increase their power. They control large portions of land, roads and ports, and have already in the past blocked supplies of fuel, electricity and food, as well as being responsible for kidnappings and killings.
All of this is complicating the few forms of assistance the detainees could count on. Many of them rely on relatives and acquaintances to bring them food and meals: in Haiti it is not uncommon to see dozens of people outside prisons, often women, with bags of food for the inmates, with the name of the prisoner and the cell.
Many of them risk ending up involved in episodes of violence on the street, risks that the prison employees themselves also run: last May, for example, a police officer was hit by a bullet once he was released from prison. In other cases, people are unable to reach the prison because public transport does not work or because the streets are blocked by gangs. There are also those who do not have a network of people outside the prison able to assist them: this is the case of a prisoner interviewed by the Associated Press, who said he only eats a little rice once a day.
Health through Walls, a Florida non-profit organization that provides medical care to inmates in various prisons around the world, regularly provides Haitian inmates with nutritional supplements to avoid malnutrition, and has taught dozens of them how to recognize a sick person at inside the prison, as insecurity and instability in the country are preventing most of the medical staff from doing their job.