Official: 8 more dead due to lack of food and water in Haitian prisons

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) – An official said on Thursday that at least eight inmates died in an overcrowded prison in Haiti that had been out of food two months ago, contributing dozens of similar deaths this year as the institutions of Haiti crumble the country.

Hunger and oppressive heat contributed to the deaths of the inmates reported this week by the prison in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, Ronald Richemond, the city’s government commissioner, told The Associated Press. He said the prison houses 833 inmates.

“Whoever can help must help immediately, because the prisoners are in need,” he said.

The United Nations Security Council released a report last week saying that 54 deaths in prisons related to malnutrition have been documented in Haiti between January and April alone, in the country of more than 11 million people.

It urged the Haitian government to “take the necessary steps to find a sustainable solution to the prison food, water and medicine crisis.”

The country’s heavily overcrowded prison system has long struggled to provide food and water to inmates. It blames insufficient public funds and the problem has worsened in recent months, leading to another rise in severe malnutrition and deaths.

By law, prisons in Haiti are required to provide inmates with water and two meals a day, which usually consist of porridge and a bowl of rice with fish or some type of meat.

But in recent months, inmates have been forced to rely only on friends or family for food and water, and often can’t visit because gang-related violence makes some areas impassable, said Michelle Karshan, co-founder of the nonprofit Health via Walls. , which provides health care in Haiti’s prisons.

The nonprofit joined three other organizations this year to feed the roughly 11,000 inmates in Haiti’s 20 prisons for three months, at a time when the country was becoming increasingly unstable after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7.

But since then the situation has worsened.

“These deaths are very painful,” she said. “The internal organs begin to fail one by one. … It is horrific to witness.”

Health through Walls has launched several programs to address the problem in the long term, including starting a garden in a prison in northern Haiti that produces spinach and other crops, along with a chicken coop and fish farm.

“But that’s one prison,” Karshan said. “The bottom line is that the prison system has to take responsibility. They can’t sit back. … They are the government.”

Les Cayes and other towns in Haiti’s southern region have also been hit by a spike in gang violence that has blocked major roads to Haiti’s capital, making it extremely difficult to distribute food and other necessities to the rest of the country, it said. Pierre. Espérance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.

In addition, a water pump the Les Cayes prison relies on has long since broken, forcing relatives and friends of inmates to carry buckets of water from long distances, Richemond said.

Les Cayes, like its surrounding towns, is also still struggling to recover from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck southwestern Haiti in August, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying thousands of buildings. destroyed or damaged.

Richemond said some prison cells have been destroyed and not rebuilt, forcing authorities to cram even more people into a smaller space.

Haiti’s cell occupancy rate is more than 280% of capacity, according to the UN, with 83% of detainees held in pre-trial detention that, in some cases, can drag on for more than a decade before appearing for the first time in court, the UN said. . Many inmates take turns sleeping on the floor while others just stand or try to make hammocks and attach them to cell windows, paying someone to hold their spot.

In January 2010, some 400 inmates at Les Cayes prison rioted to protest deteriorating conditions. Authorities said police killed at least 12 inmates and injured up to 40 others.

Espérance, with the National Human Rights Defense Network, blamed the government for the current situation and said officials should enforce the rule of law.

“The situation is getting worse by the day,” he said. “They can only solve the problem for one or two weeks. After that the problem persists. Today it is Les Cayes. Tomorrow it could be somewhere else.”

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.