BY John Carroll M.D.
Yesterday, Pierre and I went to Cabaret to visit Sarah. Pierre is raising Sarah’s 16-year-old daughter, but he has only visited Sarah twice during her incarceration because he states that it is just too hard for him to see her in prison. There are only two visiting days each week—Tuesdays and Fridays at 10 AM. And the visit is limited to ten minutes.
Haiti’s penal system is the world’s most congested with a 454 percent occupancy rate according to the University of London’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research. The Philippines comes in a distant second with a 316 percent occupancy.
The Haitian National Penitentiary for men in downtown Port-au-Prince, located only a block away from government buildings, is a tragic place. Walls surround the prison enclose a square city block. Approximately 40 percent of the country’s 11,000 inmates are in this prison. Inmates are on lockdown 22 hours a day. According to multiple sources, prisoners are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in overcrowded cellblocks. Men sleep in homemade hammocks hanging from the ceilings. In the most crowded spaces, men sleep standing up. Inmates in the National Penitentiary fight for space and are forced to defecate in plastic bags due to the absence of latrines.
Over the years prisoners have been dying in the National Penitentiary of untreated infectious diseases and malnutrition-related illnesses like beriberi (thiamine deficiency) and anemia. The great majority of prisoners are dependent on prison officials to feed them rice, oats, or cornmeal. (Food from family members provides some supplementation.) Clean drinking water is in short supply.
The Daily Mail:
“Severe overcrowding is partly due to rampant corruption, as judges, prosecutors, and lawyers join in creating a market for bribes, said Brian Concannon, director of the nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
“If nine in ten prisoners is in pretrial detention, and a person has no prospect of getting a fair trial for years, his family will find some way of raising the funds to bribe him out, regardless of guilt,” Concannon said.
“Some foreign officials who have seen the system up close are exasperated by a lack of political will to solve problems of corruption, sluggish justice, and prison conditions.
“It is unconscionable that despite hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid the situation is even worse today, with inmates suffering from severe malnutrition and dying of preventable diseases,” US Sen Patrick Leahy, who toured the National Penitentiary in 2012, said in an email.”
Pierre and I arrived at the Women’s Prison in Cabaret at 10 AM. We were two of about 40 people who showed up to visit inmates.
The door to the main entry room of the prison was opened by a security guard carrying an automatic rifle (T-65). We all laid our cellphones and ID’s on a table in front of the room and then sat on wooden benches and waited.
Two women dressed in all red prison jumpsuits entered our room and began helping the guards search the food that was brought in by family members. Both of these young women prisoners had makeup on and both could have been on the front cover of any women’s magazine. (The red garb they were wearing may have meant that they committed more serious crimes than other inmates wearing blue and green.)
The prison guard who searched the food was an unsmiling woman but she was good at her job. Visitors would walk over to her desk and put the food down in front of her. The guard would examine everything. She would squeeze plastic bags of buns and open the slivers of Laughing Cow Cheese and ask the visitor to eat some of it in front of her. Soft drinks were all opened and visitors told to drink some. A big bowl of homemade rice and beans was examined by this guard as she ran a plastic knife down through the rice to make sure there was nothing hidden in the contents. She then raised the bowl and looked at the bottom. The guard then scooped up some of the rice and beans and placed it in the palm of the visitor and the visitor quickly ate the sample to prove all was good.
After the food search was over, 15 of us were called to be searched in front of the room. Pierre and I were in the first group and we were thoroughly searched. After the search, we entered the prison yard from another door.
We were then lead to a visitors waiting room and sat on more wooden benches and waited. There was a metal screen with tiny diamond shaped holes surrounding us that we would talk through when the inmates came from their cells.
After just a few minutes, women inmates showed up on the other side of the metal screen to talk with us their visitors. I would describe it as a very happy experience for all 15 women as they came through a doorway and spotted their family members waiting to talk with them.
When Sarah came out she was all smiles spotting Pierre and me sitting there. I recognized her from having known her before her incarceration. All we could do was give her high fives against the metal latticework that separated our hands.
Sarah had no makeup on and had the blue duds on meaning that she allegedly committed a smaller crime. She appeared like she had lost weight but generally looked pretty good.
The noise in the room quickly became incredibly loud due to the animated conversations being held by 15 couples. Even though Sarah was only about 18 inches away from me, I could see her lips moving but could not really hear what she was saying.
Pierre told me that she was saying that she wanted out of prison but all in all, she was doing ok. She has two cellmates and all three of them have their own little bed. (Some cells reportedly have as many as 11 women.)
The prison prepares some food for the women but apparently not on a daily basis. On days where there is no food, Sarah will buy a little food from an inmate whose family has brought them food from the outside.
After 10 minutes of this very uplifting experience for everyone in the room, a correctional officer entered the room and blew a whistle quite loudly. This meant that the visit was over and we all turned to leave as people waved goodbye to these unfortunate women behind the screen. I did not see any tears from anyone because I think the suffering in Haiti is so great and so commonplace, that this visit did not rise to the threshold of tears.
(Pierre and Sarah’s names have been changed to protect their identities.)
Women’s Prison in Cabaret, Haiti (Photo by John Carroll)
John A. Carroll, MD