By Chris Cassidi, change.org
Even before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti earlier this year, the government acknowledged that its 17 prisons “fell far short of international standards.” That might be putting it mildly: the International Crisis Group, for one, called the Haitian prison system “a powder keg awaiting a spark.”
Now that evidence is surfacing about how guards fired into a crowd of unarmed inmates at a prison in the southern city of Les Cayes, it’s becoming ever clearer just how miserable the country’s prisons really were — and how unwilling officials are to fix them.
On Jan. 12, when Haiti’s earthquake hit, the 19th-century prison at Les Cayes contained 467 detainees in just 14 cells — quadruple the facility’s intended capacity. Fully three-fourths of the population was made up of pre-trial detainees who hadn’t been convicted of any crime. As the quake rocked the ground, prisoners clamored to be released from their cells. When the prisoners spurned guards’ orders to quiet down, the noisiest inmates were beaten with batons, forced into especially crowded cells and had their twice-a-day bathroom privileges revoked.
Angered, the prisoners began to plan their escape. A week after the quake, when just five out of the original 29 guards were present, inmates escaped from one cell while their chamber pots were being emptied. Using fists, buckets of urine and a toothbrush-turned-shiv, the prisoners forced their way out, snatched the guard’s keys, and began opening cell after cell. After hours of rioting, the prisoners were finally subdued by clouds of tear gas. At that point, prisoners say, the guards demanded that they lay down. But once the prisoners did, they say, guards opened fire — killing between 12 and 19 inmates (who were later buried in unmarked graves).
Officials are blaming the deaths on a ringleader among the inmates, who they say managed to seize arms from the clerk’s office before killing those who opposed his plans to escape. This doesn’t sound highly plausible, especially when contrasted not only against the prisoners’ narratives, but also that of three cooks who were present — each of whom attest that not a single prisoner fired a shot.
The UN is currently investigating the shootings, but no Haitian-led investigation of the deaths has occurred. In fact, and the warden at the time of the catastrophe has been elevated to oversee operations at the country’s largest prison in Port-au-Prince.
While the Haitian criminal justice system sorely requires international investment, those funds should not flow to Port-au-Prince without a thorough investigation into the massacre of Les Cayes’ prisoners. Ensuring that justice is served — and that human rights are respected moving forward — should be a top priority of the United States and other donors. The Haitian people deserve a system that protects their human rights, not one that endangers them.