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  • Hugh Locke

Report From Inside the National Penitentiary in Haiti

A drone view of Haiti's National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, March 3, 2024. Photo credit: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

In commenting on the escape of thousands of prisoners following a gang attack on the National Penitentiary in Haiti last Saturday, I do so with firsthand knowledge of the facility… albeit not recent. Some years ago I set out to help a troubled young Haitian orphan named Emmanuel, but despite the best efforts of myself and several friends, he ended up in this prison as a young adult. It was in this context that I visited the jail several times.


It is a forbidding and sprawling complex located not far from the center of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. On any given day it is a surprisingly bustling place. Most mornings family members of the prisoners form long lines, often more than a hundred deep, as they wait patiently for the main doors to open. They are there to bring food for those on the inside.


This particular facility was designed to hold 800 prisoners, but for more than a decade it has been home to an estimated 4,000 men. It is hard to describe the conditions because to do so with any degree of accuracy risks sounding vastly exaggerated. To say that it is medieval is being generous, and the overwhelming stench hits you in waves even before you have entered.


When Emmanuel was first sent there I had to buy him a mattress because otherwise he would be forced to sleep on a filthy concrete floor. I then began bringing food because without outside supplies the inmates are seriously undernourished. I would buy his favorites, which included cornflakes and peanut butter (I gave up on any attempt at fresh and nutritious produce). Upon entering the jail the guards would inspect the contents of my shopping bag and use sharp objects thrust into each item to ensure there were no hidden weapons. Having determined the contents to be safe, I would then negotiate on the amount of the bribe necessary to ensure that Emmanuel actually received the goods. We usually settled on a US$20 bill.


Having made my deal with the guards, I was then shown into a visitor section with a high chain link fence along one side and through which you could see a large open courtyard. Emmanuel would approach from the other side of the fence and we would talk through the metal grill. I always checked to make sure that what I had brought on the last visit had actually been given to him because the negotiations with the guards never left me with complete confidence that the terms of our transactions would be honored.


Over the years I brought clothes, sandals (shoes were not practical) and various board games, although I learned that decks of cards were not allowed because it could encourage gambling (which I thought was more than ironic given the rampant corruption that pervaded the place). On one occasion I brought him a small ipod loaded with every imaginable rap song, his favorite musical genre, and he assured me there were electrical outlets where he could charge it. The unit was also small enough that he could hide it from other prisoners.


On one occasion Emmanuel surprised me with a gift. He had folded gum rappers and woven them together to make a wallet. While the colorful result was not in any way practical, it was a particularly touching gesture from someone who had so little.


In between my visits a good friend stepped in to deliver the groceries, and eventually we changed the system and between us provided a monthly cash amount that included a bribe for the guards.


I regret to say that during the pandemic I was not able to keep up my visits, and since then have lost touch. I have to hope that Emmanuel was discharged before the Saturday mass escape, but at any rate I wish him well as he experiences freedom after so many years behind bars.


Even in a country that has become used to gang violence, this attack on the national penitentiary and one other prison came as a huge shock. However, I urge people not to give up on Haiti. Now is the time to begin planning to support the many organizations that have stayed throughout the trouble in recent years. The Smallholder Farmers Alliance is just one of these groups, and together with others we are preparing to jumpstart recovery efforts as soon as this current cycle of violence is ended and the nation is on track to fulfill the dreams of its founders back in 1804.

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18 mar

HLK88 I regret not being able to continue visiting during the pandemic and that I have since lost contact. At any rate, I wish Emmanuel well as he enjoys freedom after spending so many years behind bars. I can only hope that he was released before to the Saturday mass breakout.

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