Men rummage through the remains at the Haitian National Penitentiary that stands burnt and empty after a 7.0 magnitude quake rocked Port-au-Prince, in this United Nations handout photo taken and released on January 14. Photo Credit: United Nations, Reuters.

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The Port-au-Prince slum Cite Soleil was renowned for extreme violence and as stronghold for gang activity. Recently, activities there had calmed – as Reuters notes, “The pacification of Cite Soleil had been one of President Rene Preval’s few undisputed achievements since taking office in 2006, until the quake devastated Port-au-Prince.”

The National Penitentiary served to incapacitate the capital’s violent gang members and leaders. Between 3,000 and 4,000 former-inmates are now on the streets. The remains and records amid the rubble of the Ministry of Justice have been torched destroying the information needed to track down the former prison population. Law and order are fragile now, but still, violent incidents are few.

Undoubtedly, fear reigns. From the Guardian:

Now Cite Soleil is braced for a return of the gangs.

“They got out of prison and now they’re going around trying to rob people,” said Cite Soleil resident Elgin St Louis, 34, told Reuters. “Last night they spent the whole night shooting,” she added. “We dread their return,” said another.

So far, warnings that Port-au-Prince would descend into anarchy have not materialised. Lawlessness has been localised and confined largely to the night. But the few incidents have been brutal. In the Delmar neighbourhood, two suspected looters were tied together and beaten before being dragged through the streets.

Haiti’s National Penitentiary became an essential apparatus in Preval’s abatement of gang command in Port-au-Prince’s poorer neighbourhoods. In 2004, it is alleged prison administration put down a non-violent protest with lethal force. President Rene Preval’s office argued that they used acceptable force in the interest of self-defense.

But the problem’s in Haiti’s prisons existed long before Preval’s insertion into power in 2004 and even before Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s third stint as president (2001 – 2004).

In 1997, Donna DeCesare won the Alicia Patterson Fellowship and, in 2000, used the opportunity to examine the links between criminal activity, US deportees and gang structure in Haiti.

From looking at her essay I can only presume Preval’s strategic battle with the gangs compounded problems of overcrowding. DeCesare’s essay touches necessarily upon issues of poverty, services, police shortcomings and judicial corruption … all the while following the fortunes of Touchè Caman, U.S. deportee and organizer for Chans Altenativ, an organisation to help Haitian deportees.

Brilliant journalism, but of course ten years old.

More immediately are the concerns of safety and health for Haitians in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas.

At the Haitian National Penitentiary, Touchè Caman does outreach for Chans Altenativ.looking for deportees among the inmates. “I never thought I’d be going back into a prison after the last time,” he tells me laughing. “It’s a lot different on the other side of the bars. Maybe Chans Altenativ can help a few of them when they get out.” © Donna DeCesare

At Forte Nacional, where children, women and youths are incarcerated, more than 40 youths share the same cell. There are no school classes or trade workshops here. Most of these boys are 16 years old. A few are younger. Some claim membership in Base Big Up and other gangs. One thing is certain, without training or rehabilitative programs of any kind to offer alternatives to street life, many of these boys will find their way into criminal gangs when they are released, even if they weren’t already involved. © Donna DeCesare

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