BY PAUL FARMER
Jan 2, 2006
”Lord, when was it we saw you sick and in prison?” — A question from the Gospel according to Matthew and surely a pertinent question for an American doctor working in his own country, Haiti, Siberia or Rwanda.
PORT-AU-PRINCE — From time to time I see patients who are both sick and imprisoned. Those in Haiti are among the most unfortunate — a U.S. court this year said that Haiti’s prisons were ”reminiscent of a slave ship.” A commission from the Organization of American States recently visited Haiti’s National Penitentiary and reported that, of its 1,054 inmates, only nine had been convicted of any crime. And prisoners in Haiti receive almost nothing in the way of effective medical care.
Haiti’s best known prisoner is a Catholic priest, Father Gerard ”Gerry” Jean-Juste. Born and raised in Haiti, he was the first Haitian ordained a priest in the United States. Inspired by liberation theology, Father Gerry has worked with the homeless, uprooted and poor. He directed Miami’s Haitian Refugee Center from 1979 to 1989, which championed the rights of Haitian immigrants, most of them newly arrived ”boat people” fleeing persecution and misery in Haiti.
But Father Gerry traded the comforts of Florida for the slums of his native country. Charismatic and warm, he turned his attention to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and putting children in school. This work became more difficult following the February 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was threatened, harassed and beaten. In October 2004, he was arrested illegally while feeding children their only meal of the day.
When the government could present no evidence of wrongdoing, a judge released Father Gerry after seven weeks in jail. The government then forced the judge out of office and found a more compliant substitute. The persecution was renewed last July 21, when he was arrested, again illegally, at a funeral. He has been imprisoned for five months despite the government producing no evidence against him.
In August, Amnesty International adopted Father Gerry as a prisoner of conscience. In December, 42 U.S. representatives called for his immediate release, as have Sens. Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin and Christopher Dodd, Human Rights First, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Demonstrations in Port-au-Prince, Miami, Boston, New York and San Francisco have called for his release. In late December alone, hundreds of letters asking for his immediate release flooded the offices of Haitian officials and the U.S. Embassy.
I visited Father Gerry just before Christmas because I had heard reports that his health was deteriorating. He told me first to think of fellow prisoners who may be in worse shape. He also insisted on praying, then singing, then introducing me to some of his jailers. ”Some of them are really quite nice,” he said cheerfully. I finally examined him, obtained the necessary specimens and brought them to the laboratory.
When his neck first began to swell some months ago, he thought it was due to a beating he’d received in jail. But the swelling on both sides of his neck increased, followed by fatigue and swollen lymph nodes elsewhere.
A definitive diagnosis is in: Father Gerry has leukemia, possibly a rapidly progressive form. So he is not only a prisoner of conscience, one of hundreds in Haiti, but a sick prisoner who needs more than prayers and letters of support. He needs proper medical care and, probably, chemotherapy. As we know from long experience in central Haiti, it’s hard enough to deliver chemotherapy anywhere in the country. It’s simply not possible to do so in a Haitian prison.
Time is running out for a fine man who has done much to assuage the suffering of the Haitian poor. Those who know Haiti believe that it’s well within the power of the U.S. administration, the Haitian government’s principal international patron, to have Father Gerry released immediately for the medical attention he needs.
”I’m sure I’ll be out of prison soon,” he told me on Christmas Eve. ”But what about all the others? They need help too.” What is needed is to have those calling the shots in Haiti — many of them in the United States — reverse the policies that have filled Haiti’s prisons with expediently chosen ”suspects” against whom no charges have been presented. The way to start is to release Father Gerry for proper medical evaluation and care.
Paul Farmer, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has worked in Haiti for more than 20 years.