PORT-AU-PRINCE – Eleven year-old Carmen Suze quarrel with a classmate landed her in jail. Her voice barely audible, she explained that her friend had lifted her skirt and had been the first to throw a rock, and that she didn’t know how badly she had hit her back. Eight days later, the girl died from the blunt force of Suze’s retaliation.
“I didn’t hit her so hard,” said Suze, who doesn’t know her friend died. She is now in jail waiting for a trial that may come inmonths and her family has no means to pay for a lawyer.
Suze is the youngest of 58 minors currently incarcerated in Port-au-Prince’s penitentiaries, held next to adult inmates, with no trial, no legal representation and in degrading conditions, Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) said last month.
Like much of the country’s infrastructure, Haiti’s penitentiary system suffered huge losses in the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince last January. Some 4,000 inmates escaped when the country’s largest prison collapsed, and while hundreds were rearrested in the following weeks, many more remain on the loose.
Though the United Nations, and international and Haitian groups like Human Rights Watch and the RNDDH have repeatedly denounced the practice of pretrial detention – a common practice long before the earthquake – little has changed.
Haiti’s chief prosecutor, Auguste Aristidas, said he has been working to put an end to extended pretrial detentions.
“It is our responsibility to make sure the arrested appear before a judge,” Aristidas said in an interview, though he admitted that the majority don’t. “We are fighting against these preventive detentions, we are trying to make sure there are no illegal arrests and that legal procedures are applied.”
Suze was arrested in May near the central plateau town of Mirebalais and taken to the Petionville Civil Prison. She is the last addition to a group of 15 girls age 11 to 17, who share a 40 square foot cell with two thin mattresses and a hammock in the country’s only penitentiary for women. The cell’s maximum capacity is four people, according to the RNDDH, which first denounced the prison’s conditions.
“Nobody explained to Suze what was happening or how long she would be here for,” said Marie-Yolaine Mathieu, the prison’s motherly warden, 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.
But like that of most inmates in Haitian jails, Suze’s detention is “preventive,” Mathieu explained, and based on little evidence. More than 76 percent of Haitian inmates are pretrial detainees, Human Rights Watch reported in 2009, a number only bound to increase following the judiciary chaos caused by the earthquake.
Lost staff, archives and damaged institutions have put a strain on a system that was already imperfect before, Aristidas said, echoed by penitentiary staff.
“They just send people to prison and forget them here,” said Mathieu, adding that 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?”
Aristidas said the conditions of minors in jails are “intolerable” and has been pushing the Ministry of Justice to intervene. He is also fighting illegal arrests and extended pretrial detentions, he said in an interview, and reviewing each prisoner’s case, he added, 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, both at the judicial and at the penitentiary level.
“Minors should not be tried by common tribunals but by tribunals for children,” he said, admitting that when trials of minors do happen, they are technically illegal because carried out by unspecialized tribunals. A 1952 law mandated all Haitian civil tribunals to operate a separate section for minors, but this has failed to materialize due to lack of resources.
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.
Charged with theft or assault and rarely with more severe crimes like kidnapping and murder, inmates wait in limbo, unable to afford legal defense. Eleven girls reached the age of majority while under custody in the Petionville prison, where pregnant women and inmates with babies are also incarcerated.
The facility shook with the January earthquake but didn’t collapse.
Officials inspected the building and recommended repairs, but last week, inmates continued 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, adding that the penitentiary lacks the necessary means. “I have 306 women here, in a building that legally shouldn’t have more than 36.”
Though girls at the Petionville prison attend classes sponsored by the United Nations and wardens even organized a small party for Haiti’s National Children’s Day on June 13, conditions remains dire, with no prospect of change.
“How are they going to make up for the time they lost?” asked Mathieu, a mother herself, of her young inmates. “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 aged 13 to 17 share a “dirty, wet and foul smelling cell,” according to 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, their walls sprayed with graffiti of slaves in chains.
Marie Yolene Gilles, an advocate with the RNDDH, regularly lobbies with prison authorities to improve living conditions for underage inmates.
Sitting in the office of the penitentiary’s new director, Denis Clarel, Gilles criticized the government for failing to protect incarcerated minors. Clarel was appointed last May after his predecessor was suspended pending investigation of his involvement in the murder of 12 detainees in Les Cayes prison, last January.
A hundred mattresses still wrapped in plastic lined his office wall – a gift from Haitian-American singer Wyclef Jean, who recently visited the prison. Wards said they were 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 there,” 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 said, standing in the National Penitentiary’s steamy kitchen and 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 said.
Aristidas said the Ministry of Justice is doing what it can.
“The situation was always precarious, but January 12 complicated things tremendously,” he said. “We’re trying to change this, but it will take time.”
At the National Penitentiary and the Petionville Civil Prison, teenagers and children like Carmen Suze continue to wait
“I don’t like it here,” the girl said, looking to the ground. “I miss my parents.”