“We are tired of living like this, we live worse than animals,” a Haitian prisoner recently told the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). His testimony and those of the more than 800 prisoners in 12 jails are part of a comprehensive report published today by the UN mission and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This tough reminder of the reality in Haiti’s prisons should be a wake-up call for Haitian authorities to push for long-needed reforms.
The report exposes how most detainees live in overcrowded, poorly lit cells without proper ventilation, clean water, or sanitation facilities. They defecate in buckets that are not regularly emptied. They get one daily ration of food and have limited or no access to health care. These conditions amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and maybe even torture, the UN concluded. They also predate the Covid-19 pandemic, which has made the situation even worse.
Monitoring mechanisms haven’t worked to address these appalling conditions. Officials from the Haitian Prison Administration lack resources to visit prisons regularly. A special office opened in 2018 to inspect prisons has not carried out visits. There is no formal mechanism for detainees to report abuses to the General Inspectorate of the National Police.
A main cause of overcrowding is the authorities’ excessive use of pretrial detention. As of June 1, more than 82 percent of detainees had not been tried. Often, detainees are held arbitrarily for over a year before they even see a judge. In March 2021, the UN Security Council again called on Haiti to end the practice of prolonged pretrial detention after years of resolutions and investments to do so.
A new criminal code and criminal procedure code adopted by presidential decree in 2020 and set to enter into force June 2022, provide for Haiti to pursue alternative measures to pretrial detention and establish detention of children as a measure of last resort. Whether implemented in their current form or adopted by a future parliament, the measures could limit the use of pretrial detention.
But to reduce overcrowding and protect prisoners’ rights, key international actors should urge Haiti to also fully implement other recommendations by Haitian civil society groups and BINUH, including strengthening judicial independence and addressing police corruption.
Without such pressure, Haitian authorities will have very limited incentives, if any, to reverse the appalling conditions that have characterized Haitian prisons for at least 25 years.