PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The skinny teenager appears nervous, and with reason: He is waiting for a tap on the shoulder that could send him back to the dismal prison where he spent four years without being charged or seeing a judge.
He is one of more than 5,000 prisoners who fled their cells after January’s devastating earthquake and are now being rounded up by Haitian police and returned to a system notorious for appalling conditions and delays.
Legal experts say the earthquake has given the country a chance to reform its judiciary, which has been the source of international condemnation for years. But the young man on the run, who insists he is innocent, is afraid any solution will come too late for him.
“I’d like to be able to go to them and just say, ‘You were wrong, let me be free,'” said the 19-year-old, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of his legal situation. “But I’m scared that they’ll just lock me up again.”
Justice Minister Paul Denis acknowledged that the justice system is guilty of “extremely serious” human rights violations and agreed the problem is particularly bad for juveniles. Authorities will seek to speed up the process in the future, he added, though no one has yet offered a formal plan for rebuilding the judiciary.
Still, Denis said the country is seeking to round up all the prisoners who were either released or escaped during the Jan. 12 earthquake under circumstances that remain murky.
“It’s an unacceptable situation, but what can I say, it’s the law. They must give themselves up and will without doubt be re-arrested,” Denis told The AP at his temporary office in a prefab building behind the collapsed Ministry of Justice.
There are conflicting accounts about what happened on the night of the earthquake. A guard, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, said the prisoners began to riot and set fire to the building. The guards, faced with the choice of shooting or releasing them amid the chaos and aftershocks, chose to let them go.
The teen, who only gave the AP his first name, Guy, supported the guard’s story, saying the prisoners shook the bars and screamed for help as the walls shuddered. Some prisoners set a fire to force their release.
“We thought we were going to die,” Guy said.
U.N. officials say eight of the country’s 17 prisons were destroyed or damaged, and 60 percent of the 9,000 prisoners fled — including 300 considered very dangerous. Some were notorious gang leaders, while hundreds were jailed supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in a violent rebellion in 2004.
Denis said that as of Wednesday about 160 had been recaptured. Two more were arrested Friday as they tried to cross the border into the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Haiti has reopened its national penitentiary in the largely destroyed downtown. The prison built for 800 held 4,300 at the time of the earthquake, which the Haitian government says killed at least 230,000 people.
Many prisoners and detainees suffered from a lack of basic hygiene, malnutrition and poor quality health care, the U.S. State Department said in a 2009 report on human rights. Incidents of preventable diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis “remained a serious problem,” it said.
At the end of 2008, 88 percent of the country’s 316 incarcerated juveniles had been held three years without charges or trial, according to the report.
Guy was charged with criminal association — a catchall violation used against everyone from political prisoners to the 10 American missionaries arrested on Jan. 29 for trying to bring 33 children out of the country without the proper papers after the quake.
Two of the Americans are still in custody, but a judge has said he would probably release them soon.
Guy said he was arrested in March 2006 when he was 16 and never appeared before a judge. He had been walking with a friend who was carrying a pistol when they were stopped by police; his friend escaped.
It was impossible to confirm the details of his story, but lawyers and experts on Haiti said it sounded sadly familiar.
The U.S.-based Rural Justice Center conducted a survey of 1,000 prisoners at the penitentiary before the quake and determined that only about 2 percent should have actually been in prison. Most of the rest had already been in custody longer than the sentence for the crimes they were detained for. Or they were held without adequate justification in the first place.
One man was arrested for dancing with the wife of a policeman, said Dorvil Odler, a Haitian lawyer who helped conduct the survey. He served three years. Even after being ordered released by a judge, the man was still in custody at the time of the earthquake.
Denis said he has been working since he became justice minister in November to get magistrates to rule more quickly on minor infractions. His predecessor also tried, but met resistance because magistrates didn’t want more work, said Maurice D. Geiger, director of the New Hampshire-based Rural Justice Center.
“If you’re rich, you never go to jail because you bribe a policeman,” Geiger said. “I spoke to one judge about a lawyer paying a bribe to just get his client’s case onto the judge’s docket. His response was ‘If he has enough money to hire a lawyer, he has enough money to just pay me and he won’t need a lawyer.'”
Guy shudders at the thought of going back. He was jailed in a cell of 20 prisoners, who squeezed onto five narrow mattresses placed side by side on the floor at night.
In the day, they leaned the mattresses along the wall for more space.
“That is a place where no one should be allowed to live,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.