Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Haiti’s Incarcerated Minors: My Friends, the Children Ask for Freedom

By Alice Speri, Women’s International Perspective

Outside the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. Photograph courtesy of the author. 

Eleven-year-old Carmen Suze quarreled with a classmate and ended up in jail. Barely audible, she explains that her friend had lifted her skirt and had been the first to throw a rock. The plastic butterfly hairclips holding her braids together make her look even younger. Suze says that she did not realize how badly she had hit her back. Her father had offered the girl’s parents some money to take her to a hospital, but they did not. Her classmate died eight days later.

Suze is the youngest of 58 minors currently incarcerated in Port-au-Prince’s penitentiaries – held next to adult inmates, with no trial, and in degrading conditions.

For decades before the January earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital, the country was one of the poorest and most ravaged. Stories of ignored injustice are everywhere. Adding to their misery is the insult of anonymity and the irony of being just one among too many, with little chance of being heard.

But Haiti’s injustice is systematic.

For the first week after the earthquake, one had the impression that tragedy hit all equally, across privilege and class lines. The illusion did not last long, and six months later, the most disenfranchised continue to suffer as much as they did before. How is it possible – with over 900 NGOs currently in country, many boasting the protection of the most vulnerable as their main goal – that an 11-year-old girl is locked up in a perilous, overcrowded jail, with no prospect of getting out?

Like much of the country’s infrastructure, Haiti’s penitentiary system suffered huge losses in the earthquake. Some 4,000 inmates escaped when the country’s largest prison collapsed. While hundreds were rearrested or killed in the following weeks, many more remain on the loose.

Some of the escapees are very dangerous criminals, no doubt. Haiti has a long history of kidnappings, murders, and brutality as well as a history of gang violence financed by the wealthy and powerful. But many of these criminals – chefs as they are called here – are little more than teenagers. Brought up in slums like Cité Soleil, their reputation seems to precede any chance at redemption.

“Haitians are good people,” a volunteer with a small NGO recently told me. “Except for the gangsters downtown.” Many of the prisoners in Haiti’s jails are indeed guilty of horrible crimes. Many more are victims of circumstance. Far too many are simply innocent.

Suze was arrested in May near the central plateau town of Mirebalais in the Haitian countryside. She was taken to the Pétionville Civil Prison in the capital, the country’s only penitentiary for women. She shares a 40 square foot cell with two thin mattresses and a hammock with a group of 15 girls, ages 11 to 17. The cell’s maximum capacity is four people according to Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), which has denounced the prison’s conditions.

The author interviewing young inmates at the Pétionville Civil Prison in Port-au-Prince. Photograph ©Thony Belizaire.

According to Marie-Yolaine Mathieu, the prison’s motherly but strict warden, “Nobody explained to Suze what was happening or how long she will be here.” Adding that it will likely take months for the girl to appear before a judge, Mathieu said she doesn’t know the details of the incident. She is overwhelmed by her job, tired, and skeptical of the justice system.

Like most inmates in Haitian jails, Suze’s detention is “preventive” and based on little evidence, Mathieu explains. Human Rights Watch reported in 2009 that more than 76 percent of Haitian inmates are pretrial detainees, a number bound to increase following the judiciary chaos caused by the earthquake.

“They just send people to prison and forget them here,” says Mathieu. Many inmates have spent years waiting to be tried for crimes for which the maximum sentence would be a few months. “The girls keep asking me, when will we be tried? How long will we be here?”

In an interview, Haiti’s chief prosecutor Auguste Aristidas, said the conditions of minors in jails are “intolerable.” He has been pushing the Ministry of Justice to intervene. He is also fighting illegal arrests and extended pretrial detentions. He added that he is reviewing each prisoner’s case, pointing to that of a 14-year-old boy who was recently rearrested after escaping in January. The boy had been held for months for stealing a gallon of cheap rum.

Aristidas said adequate resources to deal with juveniles are lacking at both the judicial and the penitentiary level. “Minors should not be tried by common tribunals but by tribunals for children.” When children are arrested, Aristidas added, basic rights such as food and sanitation should be assured. “We must create an environment where reeducation can really be effective,” he said.

Pétionville prison shook with the January earthquake but did not collapse. The Ministry of Public Affairs inspected the building and recommended repairs. In July inmates continue to live in the same overcrowded cells they occupied before, some with cracks in the walls.

“They told us we’re good for now but eventually we will need to fix this,” Mathieu said. “I have 306 women here, in a building that legally shouldn’t have more than 36. Where am I supposed to put them?”

Thirteen and fourteen year old boys in prison with forty-year-old hardened men. Haiti. June 16, 2009. Photograph by Flickr user A. Thompson Photography.

Behind her, a sign sprayed on the wall in childish handwriting reads “mezanmi timoun yo mande libete,” – my friends, the children ask for freedom. “How are they going to make up for the time they lost?” asked Mathieu, a mother herself. “Every time I look at a child here I see my own daughter.”

The situation is worse at the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, where 43 boys ages 13 to 17 share a “dirty, wet, and foul smelling cell,” according to the RNDDH. These young inmates are part of the 214 minors who escaped the Delmas Civil Prison for juveniles, destroyed by the earthquake. The National Penitentiary was also damaged and 1,211 prisoners – many of them rearrested after they escaped in January – now share six cells.

Marie Yolene Gilles, an advocate with the RNDDH, regularly lobbies with prison authorities to improve living conditions for underage inmates. Gilles criticizes the government for failing to protect incarcerated minors.

A hundred mattresses, still wrapped in plastic, line the walls of the office of the National Penitentiary director. A gift from Haitian-American singer Wyclef Jean, the mattresses have been sitting there for days. They are waiting for authorization from the director to bring some of the mattresses to the boys’ cells.

“Even if they do they won’t be able to fit them in those cells,” said Gilles, adding that inmates take turns sleeping because there is not enough room for all of them to lie down at the same time.

“There is no real will to change the situation,” Gilles later says, standing in the National Penitentiary’s steamy kitchen, checking with the cooks for the daily menu. Inmates are served two meals a day but have to rely on their families for drinking water or more varied nutrition. “Until I went on public radio to talk about it, all they got was rice, every day,” Gilles says.

Haiti has received more attention in the last six months than it did in the past three decades. It took an earthquake for most to learn of its plight and few comprehend the depth of the country’s problems. The earthquake has only revealed the surface of man-made poverty and injustices that have accumulated for years. “The situation was always precarious, but January 12th complicated things tremendously,” says Aristidas. “We’re trying to change this, but it will take time.”

Everything takes time here. For six months, people have been living in tents at best, under shelters made with plastic in most cases. Building new homes might take years. Billions of dollars have been promised to Haiti. Little of it has actually arrived. Even less has been put towards tangible differences.

At Pétionville’s prison – like in the camps for the displaced that sprawl the city’s hills – what strikes the most is the sense of resignation that seems to have settled in with the rainy season. Many call it resilience, invoking this mythical notion of Haitian resilience as an excuse to accept conditions none of us would. But acceptance is not resilience. Resignation is not resilience. Hopelessness is not resilience.

At the National Penitentiary and the Pétionville Civil Prison, teenagers and children like Carmen Suze continue to wait.

“I don’t like it here,” the girl says, looking to the ground. “I miss my parents.”
About the Author:
Alice Speri is a reporter and writer based in New York City. Alice recently moved to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is working as a correspondent for The Haitian Times and stringing for AFP. Alice grew up in Italy and lived in New Mexico, India, Benin, Egypt and Palestine. In New York, Alice covered Southeast Queens and the South Bronx, while working for Al Jazeera English at the UN and completing her masters at Columbia Journalism School. As an undergrad, she studied comparative literature and government at Harvard University.

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