posted this article from Port-au-Prince. It appeared earlier
Rays of Haiti's scorching noontime sun
slip between the bars into the otherwise dark 8 by 10 foot cell,
illuminating the sets of eyes that stare out at the visitors.
My eyes adjust and the
forms of children emerge. I count 16 boys. Most squeeze seated
together on the
upper and lower levels of the three bunk beds that fit into a
tight "U." A few sprawl behind the seated ones or sit
in the tight space on the concrete floor that separates the beds.
Three more cells, each with 16 boys, adjoin this one. The youngest
of the 64 children is 10. There are at least three 10-year-olds.
The oldest is 17. Many have lived in these cells for more than
A journalist visiting Haiti for the
third time, I'm accompanying San Francisco Bay Area human rights
workers. With me at the children's prison is Sr. Stella Goodpasture,
OP, Justice Promoter, Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose and
translator, guide, advisor and friend, Daniel Tillas.
We speak to the children one at a time
through the bars of the first cell door and Sister Stella offers
each the packet of toiletries she has brought and her blessings.
We talk with the children in the other three cells more briefly
as they receive their packets.
About 80 percent of those we interview
have not been brought before a judge to be charged with a crime,
something the Haitian constitution requires during the first
48 hours after arrest. Several children say they were brought
to see a judge before being taken to jail as required, but the
judge wasn't there, so they were locked up.
Those who had actually
seen a judge, such as Claude, 15, were simply read a summary
statement of charges. "The
judges won't give you a chance to talk. They let you be in here
forever," Claude said. (While the youngsters are anxious
for others to hear their stories and do not ask for anonymity,
I am withholding their real names because they are children and
they are not safe.)
Judges asked several children for money
for their release. One judge demanded $5,000 U.S. for the child
to get out of jail.
None of the children has legal representation.
While some children have been jailed
for as long as 18 months, none reports being incarcerated before
Feb. 29, 2004, when the U.S. flew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
into exile. (The U.S. says Aristide asked to go, but Aristide,
now exiled in South Africa, says he was forced out.)
One guard tells me many
of the children were jailed as "preventive detention," though the children
do not explain their incarceration in that way. A number say
they were picked up in police "operations," which are
sweeps of poorest districts, during which police and/or United
Nations soldiers cast a wide net, looking for individuals who
may be "bandits" or "chimères," often code
words for Aristide supporters.
Samuel, 12, has been locked
up since Dec. 12, 2004. He was in his home, building a birdhouse,
police came inside and arrested him as part of an "operation." Sylvan,
16, has been jailed since July 5, 2004, caught up in a police
sweep. Paul, 15, was also picked up in a police sweep, arrested
with others in his family home and incarcerated since April 28,
2004. Ronald, 17, has been in prison since July 21, 2004, picked
up while "the police were looking for bandits." Raymond,
14, got picked up Dec. 5, 2004 in a police "operation." One
of the few, his parents visit every Sunday.
Daniel, 10, was arrested Dec. 12, 2004
and is accused of murder. Edwin, 15, was found smoking marijuana
and has been jailed since May 29, 2004; Charles, 14, was accused
of gang affiliation and has been jailed since May 12, 2004; Jacques,
17, was arrested Sept. 24, 2004 after a fight. Marc, 16, accused
of rape, has been incarcerated since Nov. 24, 2004. Joseph, 16,
has been in jail since March 24, 2004, accused of murder.
The children do not claim
mistreatment by prison guards, who walk out of earshot during
but some speak of police beatings at the time of their arrest.
Jean, 15, has been locked up since January. When police arrested
him "they asked me to tell them about the bandits." He
told them he didn't know who they were. "They beat me and
forced me to say I know the bandits," he said. Paul was
also beaten during his arrest. "They beat us to say something," he
A few of the children, such as Samuel,
14, and Edwin say their parents don't know where they are. (The
existence of the children's jail is largely unknown in Port-au-Prince.)
Some, but not all, are street children, orphans or those whose
parents were unable to afford to keep them at home. Those few
parents who visit speak to their children through the narrow
cell door, as we are doing.
The kids leave their cells to shower
and for a daily recreation period; they accomplish their toilet
needs at shower and recreation time. They have a bucket to share
at other times.
The children said the Red
Cross has come to visit them. Jean-Yves Clemenzo Port-au-Prince
spokesperson said he was unable to comment on the organization's
role there. The organization's access to prisons depends on keeping
discussions with authorities out of the public eye. "It's
a long process," he said, acknowledging that the prison
conditions in Haiti, in general, such as at the National Penitentiary
and the Women's Prison present "a lot of needs." The
Red Cross has installed a water system at the National Penitentiary,
which had been lacking.
Clemenzo also reiterated
what is already well known in Haiti: "Many are in jail without due process." The
Red Cross is addressing some of that need. "We're in discussions
with the department of prison affairs to express our concerns," he
said, noting a limitation of resources.
(Attempts to meet with Thierry Fagart,
U.N. human rights official, in Port-au-Prince or to get comments
from him by phone or e-mail have been unsuccessful. The U.N.
oversees police and jails in Haiti.)
When we get to the last cell, the guards
ask us to speed up our visit, as it is approaching time for recreation.
We find one child lying on a back bunk, his head wrapped in what
could have been a shirt. He is not interested in talking or getting
up to receive the packet of toiletries. He says he's had a bad
headache for five days. The children say they don't see doctors.
The guards are unaware of the child's headache, and, in front
of the visitors, call someone they say will give him medical
The visit weighs heavily
on Sr. Stella. "I'm
grief struck and shocked to see the children in the dark with
no place to sleep," she says.
I ask some of the children
what they wish for. Many say education. "I'd like some training," says
Edwin. "Something to help me be useful for my country."
Others express hopelessness. "I
need prayers," says Claude, jailed since July 11. "I
don't know how long I'll stay here."
Judith Scherr is a freelance writer