Haiti: Prison Reform and the Rule of Law
Haiti: Prison Reform and the Rule of Law
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 15 / Latin America & Caribbean 2 minutes

Haiti: Prison Reform and the Rule of Law

Haiti’s overcrowded, understaffed and insecure prisons are powder kegs awaiting a spark.

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I. Overview

Haiti’s overcrowded, understaffed and insecure prisons are powder kegs awaiting a spark. Any explosion of violence or mass prisoner escape could undermine recent steps by the government and UN peacekeepers (MINUSTAH) to combat urban gangs and organised crime. The immediate needs are to ensure that the most dangerous prisoners, including newly arrested kidnap suspects, are held in maximum security cells; there are more guards to protect and ensure minimum care for prisoners; and a fast-track government/donor-financed plan to build more secure prisons begins. As President René Préval’s government nears the end of its first year, failure to respond with greater urgency and resources to the prison crisis not only would complicate police and justice reform but could add to national insecurity.

Haiti’s seventeen prisons hold more than 5,500 inmates but fewer than 10 per cent have been convicted and many are yet to be charged. In the National Prison in Port-au-Prince, which is filled to eight times capacity with 2,500 prisoners, there are only 25 guards, and disease is rampant. In the system countrywide access to food is minimal and to water insufficient, while 90 per cent of inmates have some form of scabies or chronic itching, and the risk of tuberculosis (TB) is far higher than the national norm. Prisoners have to take turns sleeping or sitting, and a walk to sanitation facilities – granted only once daily and for not more than 30 minutes – is often the prisoners’ only opportunity to leave cells. The National Prison is a labyrinth of dormitories and yards, where the response as elsewhere in the system to crumbling walls and inadequate security is to keep prisoners penned in their cells. An obsession with escape feeds on and drives the cycle of misery, humiliation, frustration and violence.

Ironically the increase in arrests of gang members and serious crime convictions risks further aggravating prison overcrowding. The most dangerous offenders are not separated from petty criminals for lack of space. Justice and police reforms could fail if prison infrastructure is not immediately improved but neither donors nor the government are taking adequate account of the correctional element of security sector reform. The Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF) of 2004 identified basic commitments but the response has been minimal. While some technical support and emergency repairs have begun, only Canada has pledged to pay for construction, maintenance and substantial modernisation. There have been no significant steps to rehabilitate prisons and none at all to build them.

The Préval government was to mark a new era: it recognised the need to fight impunity through comprehensive reform of the security/justice sector, including police, judiciary and prisons, but the latter have only recently drawn any attention. Stakeholders in justice reform, including MINUSTAH and donors, need to undertake the following immediately to ensure that the critical third leg of the security stool is solid:

  • make certain the most dangerous prisoners are kept under adequate security in strengthened portions of the National Prison or moved to secure temporary facilities, while a maximum security prison is built;
  • modernise existing prisons and concurrently plan for and begin to expand prison capacity to reduce overcrowding permanently;
  • hold an emergency donors’ conference to establish a prison construction fund to meet all urgent 2007 prison construction needs and pledge towards long-term prison reform requirements;
  • give the new detention commission additional staff, advisers and computerised databases, and monitor its efforts to identify prisoners who should be released on bail or unconditionally because no charges are pending, no trial has been held, they are not a threat to society or they have served their time; and
  • bring guards more rapidly into the same vetting process as the Haitian National Police (HNP), as part of a comprehensive human resource plan to recruit, train and staff prisons.

Port-au-Prince/Brussels, 4 May 2007

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