Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti: detainees – invisible victims of the humanitarian crisis

International Committee of the Red Cross

Five months after the earthquake struck, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still suffering hardship. Those deprived of their freedom are among the most vulnerable, hidden away from the eyes of the world. Sandra Dessimoz, deputy head of delegation in Port-au-Prince, explains the difficulties detainees have to contend with on a daily basis, and what the ICRC is doing to help.

How have detainees in Haiti been affected by the earthquake?

The humanitarian situation in Haitian detention centres was already extremely worrying prior to the quake, because of severe overcrowding. In some facilities, the number of detainees exceeded six times the official capacity. In addition, detainees had only sporadic contact with their families. As in other similar contexts, the role of the family in Haiti is crucial. Relatives often bring in material items, such as food and hygiene articles, and they also offer considerable moral support. Access to health care was limited and many detainees were on long-term remand, making the situation much worse.

In the chaos that followed the earthquake, over half of detainees escaped from prisons around the country. Many facilities suffered damage, or were vandalized or set on fire, rendering them unusable. Several legal case files were lost in the rubble, further complicating the problems of long-term remand and overcrowding. Nor should we forget that the prison and judicial authorities have been just as affected as the rest of the population. Their employees also lost loved ones or saw them injured in the disaster.

What is the current situation at the civilian prison in Port-au-Prince?

The civilian prison in Port-au-Prince is the largest prison in Haiti. The day before the earthquake, it housed almost half the country’s prison population, that is, over 4,000 detainees. All escaped during the disaster and the building suffered serious material damage. By February, just one section of the prison had been rebuilt and was available to take in detainees from the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince. By May, the population at this facility had already reached 1,000.

The authorities must urgently finish rebuilding other areas so that detainees can go out into the open air, which will help reduce the tension between them. At the moment, detainees are living in shocking conditions; space is so limited that most have to sleep sitting up and some even have to stand. In the long term, this will have serious implications for their health. Overcrowding and security concerns mean that detainees have very little opportunity to go out into the open air, which would go some way towards compensating for the difficult conditions in the cells.

What are the prison authorities doing to tackle these problems?

In a country which has suffered successive crises and disasters, the authorities face almost permanent challenges. They are aware of the difficulties and of the inadequacy of the infrastructure and the basic services. With international support, they are endeavouring to find real solutions and are working to develop the skills of the prison staff.

Since 1994, the ICRC has been providing the authorities with regular support so they can take action to improve detention conditions. Moreover, ICRC delegates are guaranteed direct access at all times to anyone deprived of their liberty, in their cell. ICRC assistance takes different forms, depending on the needs. For example, following the quake, we supplied detainees with emergency aid in the form of 40 tonnes of food, drugs and hygiene products. We also repaired the only usable detention quarters at the civilian prison in Port-au-Prince, to ensure detainees had access to water and could maintain minimum levels of hygiene. We also support administration of the health services. Through these measures, the ICRC hopes to help provide those held in Haitian prisons with acceptable living conditions.

Other Haitian and international organizations work in prisons. What makes the ICRC unique?

Many other agencies are working in prisons or with the justice system. Given the existing humanitarian needs, all these efforts need to be coordinated if we are to genuinely improve the situation. Thanks to its expertise and its proximity to the prison population, the ICRC clearly makes a significant contribution and plays an important role. ICRC delegates are able to talk to detainees face to face and in confidence during their regular visits to the main places of detention. This gives them in-depth knowledge of the problems, and greater credibility with both the authorities and the detainees.

The problems in prisons are inter-dependent. For example, hygiene and access to the open air are directly linked to health. In order to better assess and meet the needs, ICRC delegates work with colleagues who have expertise in health, water and sanitation. This multidisciplinary approach enables us to identify the problems, to advise the authorities and to run various projects, all with the same objective – to improve detainees’ living conditions.

What are the ICRC’s current priorities concerning detention in Haiti?

We have resumed the projects already underway before the earthquake. In particular, we are working with the civilian prison in Port-au-Prince to improve the social, legal and medical services available to detainees, all the while working on water, sanitation and infrastructure. Different projects are currently being planned for other prisons in the country. We are continuing to support medical services in order to continue improving access to health care for detainees outside Port-au-Prince. Our staff are also ready to respond to any new emergencies that detainees and the prison service may be faced with.

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