Student activist Tristan 'Mahfoud' Matiado. Photo courtesy of Tristan Matiado

Tristan ‘Mahfoud’ Matiado, 26, looked unsettled, yet calm, as he looked into his phone camera to say the words that distressed so many of his supporters. 

‘I’m here in the Petit-Goâve police station,’ Matiado said the afternoon of Aug. 24 in a video posted on social media.

He then lowered the camera toward his arm, showing it handcuffed to the bars of a jail cell. The activist, applauded by many Haitians for fearlessly speaking out against Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse, spent one night in jail after that arrest. But it was long enough for him to decide that he would speak up for inmates too.

“I made a promise to the inmates, so I have to talk about my experience in jail,” Matiado told The Haitian Times a week after his release. 

“Prisoners are people too,” he said in a recent tweet. “People don’t live like that.”

The arrest that went viral

Matiado, a psychology student at the University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince, started gaining popularity in 2019 for ferociously denouncing Moïse and the government through videos and writings he posted on Twitter and Facebook.

On the afternoon of Aug. 24, Matiado was at his home in Petit-Goâve, the southwestern city 45 miles from Port-au-Prince, when three police officers came to arrest him. When reached, Petit-Goâve police did not give a reason for the arrest. 

Initially, the officers took Matiado to the local police station. At the time, Matiado believed he would be set free promptly. He recorded the video from inside that police station and sent it to a friend. The video quickly spread on social media and numerous viewers demanded his release.

While the video was being shared online, police were taking Matiado to the Petit-Goâve Civil Prison. As he was led toward the penitentiary, Matiado said, his mind went blank at what he saw.

Nearly 200 people were crammed into one holding cell of about 25 square meters, roughly 270 square feet.

“Psychologically, I was not stable,” he said. “It was the first time I was going to go through this.”

Jailhouse experience

Matiado would later learn that the original Petit-Goâve penitentiary was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. While it was being reconstructed, authorities kept putting suspects into one serviceable cell originally built to hold four people.

The police said the city has a new prison that’s been built since 2017 but authorities choose not to use it. Local authorities haven’t said anything publicly about why it’s not in use.

During Matiado’s short time in that one holding pen, the psych student said, he saw inmates constantly coughing, others suffering from diarrhea and many who looked awfully frail.

Shower time consisted of the inmates getting on their knees as jailers came by with buckets of water to throw on them. Inmates had to quickly soap up before the next bucket was thrown at them again to rinse off.

Matiado chose not to shower.

Despite the conditions, the inmates, some of whom knew of him from his videos, welcomed Matiado. One prisoner shared the bread and peanut butter his family had brought over, since jailers do not provide food to inmates. Another let Matiado sleep on his cot.

He learned that about 90 inmates haven’t seen a judge yet about their charges. Some have been waiting for such a hearing for five years, Matiado said.

Even while talking with the inmates, Matiado said he felt clouded mentally trying to fully process that he was in jail. Slowly, he regained his senses when he saw people he knew, including a former schoolmate.

While the young activist bonded on the inside, his attorney Madorchée Marseille worked on the outside to get him out and Matiado was released the next morning. 

Call for better treatment

Now, Matiado said, he wants these inmates to at least be moved to the newly-built facility with better conditions. He asked his supporters to help him fight for the prisoners in a tweet on Aug. 26. 

It translates to: ‘The people who helped me, help me ask for better treatment for the prisoners (especially those at Petit-Goâve). Even dogs are more comfortable than them.’

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Onz Chery is a Haiti correspondent for The Haitian Times. Chery started his journalism career as a City College of New York student with The Campus. He later wrote for First Touch, local soccer leagues in New York and Elite Sports New York before joining The Haitian Times in 2019.

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