Working for Human Rights and Justice in Haiti – Deborah Dimmett

July 11, 2017

Haiti has long had a history of overcrowded prisons due in part to the overwhelming number of pretrial detainees. Inmates of the National Penitentiary and other lockups are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in cellblocks so overcrowded they have to sleep in makeshift hammocks suspended from the ceiling or squeeze into shared bunks. New arrivals jostle for space on filthy floors where inmates on lockdown 22 hours a day are forced to defecate into plastic bags in the absence of latrines. Prison authorities say they are doing their best to meet the needs of inmates, but they are unable to purchase sufficient food and cooking fuel leading to starvation and a host of ailments related to sever malnutrition. The National Penitentiary has even resorted to mass burials of inmates dying from diseases related to poor living conditions.

Given the terribly inhumane treatment of prison detainees, particularly in the men’s prisons, I left for Haiti to learn more about the conditions and draft a request for a thematic hearing with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Up to now, most of my work has focused on literature and document reviews as well as interviews and site visits. These are not simple tasks in Haiti. To set up interviews and arrange site visits, one has to do a fair amount of networking. This week I visited Cite Soleil, a commune north of Port-au-Prince that has always been associated with extreme poverty and violent crime. The objective of the two visits was to interview people who had recently served time in the National Penitentiary and would be willing to discuss their experiences. However, it was through a contact that I was able to enter the zone and be welcomed. Franck, a traditional Haitian drummer, brought me along to the Cite to meet some of the other drummers who play with him. While there, I told them about my project and asked for their assistance in finding people to interview. They were more than willing to help since the occurrence of arbitrary arrests and detentions are so common there. Jean Yves was the first to share his story. He was standing on a street corner where MINUSTAH, the UN Peacekeeping Mission, was conducting a sweep one day. He was arrested for possession of marijuana; however, he was never given a pretrial hearing. In fact, his release came only after he served time for an offense with no hearing or trial. Only through local fundraising was he able to get enough money to pay attorney and legal fees to be released. Otherwise, he would be lost in the system and possibly never see his friends and family again.

Jean Yves described and confirmed the stark reality of life in the National Penitentiary. He was in a section of the prison known as the Titanic. It’s where they house the largest number of detainees with the fewest resources. In these cells, there is no room to move, no latrines, nothing. People die everyday from starvation and disease—many of which are communicable, such as tuberculosis. They get two meals a day—cornmeal in the morning and rice or spaghetti in the afternoon. The food has almost no nutritional value and often inedible from spoilage or infestation. He urged me to make a visit to the National Penitentiary to see the men in an emaciated state and indicated with his hands that I would see them with swollen bellies and too weak to stand. They have no one to advocate for them and no foreseeable hearing. They only know that if they are not released soon, they will die there.

Soon after the interview, I heard the familiar rhythms of vodou and saw a crowd gather around Franck and several other drummers. People in the street walked up to me and welcomed me to Section 17 of Cite Soleil. I realized that the notoriety given to those who live there was undeserved and another way in which innocent people are criminalized. They are among the very poorest in all of Haiti. And, because of their situation, many who have never visited Cite Soleil will always see the place and the people as dangerous—a prevailing attitude that often results in denial of basic civil and human rights. Yet, my experiences that afternoon led me to wonder who are the real perpetrators of violence. Are they the people in the Cite who depend on each other for survival? Or, are they the all of us who support systems of structural violence that further suppress a vulnerable population?

MINUSTAH, the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, first arrived in 2004 after a rebellion that led to Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s forced exile. Insecurity throughout the country was high at that time, and one of MINUSTAH’s mandates was to increase that security. The mission has accomplished this, but the cost of bringing security to the country has also meant that there are more arbitrary arrests. It is ironic that the UN peacekeeping mission is responsible for many of these arrests. A common sentiment is that this is at least partly to blame for overcrowding and an overtaxed legal system. Many wonder how the UN can say that it upholds the rights of all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while allowing these arbitrary arrests to occur. And, how can the UN turn its back on the extremely harsh and inhumane conditions arrestees are placed in. The UN peacekeeping mission ends this year. Many people who I have spoken with anticipate a significant reduction of arbitrary arrests and prison overcrowding. While I hope this is the case, in the meantime, proper oversight and pressure are necessary to reform the prison system and bring about human rights and security for all in Haiti.

Deborah Dimmett
Master's Development Practice Candidate, 2018
University of Arizona