Het gevangenisprobleem in Haïti vormt een uitdaging voor het opruimen van bendes

By | January 27, 2024

Mensen verzamelen zich buiten de Nationale Gevangenis om voedsel te bezorgen bij hun gevangengenomen familieleden in het centrum van Port-au-Prince, Haïti, op donderdag 1 juni 2023.

Mensen verzamelen zich buiten de Nationale Gevangenis om voedsel te bezorgen bij hun gevangengenomen familieleden in het centrum van Port-au-Prince, Haïti, op donderdag 1 juni 2023.

AP

Young girls are being gang raped, entire neighborhoods are emptying under the barrage of gunfire, and ransom kidnappings are again flourishing.

As Haiti helplessly flails, unable to stop the violent onslaught and the United Nations repeatedly calls for an international armed force to confront marauding gangs, a question looms amid the chaos: Where would you put the arrested gang leaders?

Haiti not only has a gang problem, it has a prison problem. With disease and death constant threats due to food shortages, limited medical supplies, budget problems and delays in the transfer of inmates to hospitals, the country’s prisons have become a security risk, aggravated by the gang crisis.

At least one facility, the newly built women’s prison in Cabaret, is shuttered after repeated gang attacks led to a mass breakout. A second, in the suburbs of Croix-des-Bouquets, is in the cross-hairs of three powerful armed gangs. And the prison for minors now contains adult women and teenage girls in the same facility as teenage boys.

Then there’s the National Penitentiary, where current inmates include the former president of the Lower Chamber of Deputies, Cholzer Chancy, the prison’s highest-profile detainee, and the suspects in the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, including 17 Colombian nationals.

The prison is under constant threats of pending gang attacks, which regularly lead to lockdowns. The penitentiary, which suffers from a severe lack of food, propane fuel and drinking water, is also wrestling with a feet-deep infestation of sewage and garbage.

The conditions in the penitentiary “are the gravest,” according to the country’s director of prisons, and have spread throughout the prison system.

READ MORE: ‘It’s my whole life:’ Florida kidnap victims testify in trial of Haiti gang leader

‘Overwhelmed institutions’

In a report to the U.N. Security Council in September, U.N. chief Antonio Guterres acknowledged that Haiti’s prison system, along with judiciary and national police, can not handle the gangs, which he said “have overwhelmed the already weak institutions.”

The question of where to put gang members if and when a multinational force is deployed is being raised as the Security Council awaits this week a ruling in Kenya’s High Court on whether the East African nation, which has offered to lead a Multinational Security Support mission to Haiti, can deploy 1,000 of its police officers to Haiti.

The deployment, approved by the Security Council in October, has been on hold after the High Court in Nairobi blocked it hours after the country’s parliament approved the measure. The block was extended in November pending the outcome of a legal challenge that the court is set to hear on Friday. The challenge was brought by a former presidential candidate and the opposition party on constitutional grounds.

Despite the legal hurdles, planning for a deployment has continued. Among the options under discussion at the U.N. are relocating arrested gang leaders to Morne Casse, a modern prison built by the United States and located in northern Haiti. The other option is the women’s prison in Cabaret, which is also built to modern standards with a capacity of 130 inmates.

Each of the options, however, present challenges. Though Morne Casse is currently only half full, its location presents a logistics problem: Getting prisoners there through gang-controlled roads. The area was calm until recently, but has become a site of protests by supporters of a former rebel leader and convicted felon, Guy Philippe, who want Prime Minister Ariel Henry to step down.

While the prison in Cabaret is closer to the capital, gaining control of it would require the multinational force to free the area from gang control.

Another concern: Keeping detained gang members from gaining control of the prisons. In 2005, during the last U.N. peacekeeping mission, more than 800 gang members were jailed inside the National Penitentiary — and by their sheer numbers began running the prison from the inside.

“Arresting gang members and leaders is one thing; disarming them is something else and judging them, another,” said Marie Yolène Gilles, a human-rights advocate in Haiti. “There is no infrastructure for this. The justice ministry doesn’t even have a building.”

Gilles said the bigger problem remains Haiti’s failing justice system, which faces frequent strikes by prosecutors, judges and court personnel.

“The justice system is sick,” she said. “The courts are practically nonfunctional.”

Adding to the problem is the number of judges and court staffers who have recently left Haiti for the U.S. under a Biden administration humanitarian parole program.

Gilles’ Eyes Wide Open Foundation has repeatedly raised concerns about the judiciary and the inhumane conditions of Haiti’s prisons.

Another concern is that the three-year terms of at least seven of the investigative judges in the Port-au-Prince area will end Monday. Under Haitian law, investigative judges bring formal charges against those arrested.

Prison numbers

In his latest report, issued ahead of Thursday’s Security Council meeting, Secretary-General Guterres said that as of Jan. 4 Haiti’s prisons held 11,778 inmates in facilities designed for 3,900.

Pierre René François, the head of the Directorate of Penitentiary Administration, said the National Penitentiary alone had just over 3,700 inmates as of Tuesday.

William O’Neill, the U.N. expert on human rights in Haiti, said the country needs to assume its responsibilities and address the prison problem.

“The Haitian state must ensure that the conditions of all places of detention are humane,” he said.

O’Neill, who routinely visits the prisons on his trips to Haiti, said that more than 80 percent of detainees are awaiting trial, with some charged with petty crimes, like stealing a chicken or a bicycle, “forced to endure inhumane conditions for a period much longer than any sentence they might receive.”

The unhealthy conditions, he said, are ripe for disease and death. The U.N. has documented outbreaks of tuberculosis and COVID-19 in prisons across the country. “The Haitian state as a matter of urgency must take all steps necessary to address these problems and abide by international law,” O’Neill said.

The head of the U.N. political office in Haiti, Maria Isabel Salvador, has called on the government to do more to deal with prison conditions.

On Thursday, Salvador told the Security Council that she was encouraged by efforts of Haitian authorities to improve the justice system and fight corruption. A national program to reduce the severe overcrowding in Haitian prisons, she said, has enabled the expedited processing of nearly 400 criminal cases.

O’Neill said the effort, which involves the chief prosecutor in Port-au-Prince’s visiting detention facilities on a weekly basis to determine who is eligible for immediate release, is a positive step.

“This has led to dozens of detainees being freed,” he said. “But more needs to be done.”

Dit verhaal is oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd 25 januari 2024, 11:15 uur

Jacqueline Charles heeft ruim tien jaar verslag gedaan van Haïti en het Engelssprekende Caribisch gebied voor de Miami Herald. Ze was finaliste van de Pulitzerprijs voor haar berichtgeving over de aardbeving in Haïti in 2010 en ontving in 2018 de Maria Moors Cabot Prize – de meest prestigieuze prijs voor berichtgeving over Amerika.

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