Prolonged pretrial detention, denial of care, violence and other worries for women imprisoned in Haiti
On March 7 and 8, 2021, a dramatic incident occurred at the Jacmel civil prison. Local organizations report that 25 inmates, including two minors, were beaten by five prison guards at this mixed prison.
Marie Ange Noël, coordinator of Fanm deside, a feminist organization based in Jacmel, explains that it all started when the inmates were about to take their baths. One of them complained that she had been in prolonged pretrial detention for 8 years.
“The inspector who was on duty threatened her and then hit her. Another inmate who was trying to defend her fellow inmate was also beaten. The next day, the same inspector pretended to have lost his phone. He and fellow officers forced the detainees to the ground to search them. When they could not find the phone, they hit the inmates” explains the Fanm deside coordinator.
Officials tell a very different story. “According to testimonies I received, the inmates planned an escape for March 8, because activities are always held on that date in the prison. The agents tried to foil the plan” reports Jacmel’s government commissioner, Lionel Cherima.
Fanm deside and other organizations in Jacmel took the opposite view of government commissioner Cherima’s statement in a press release. On Thursday, March 11, 2021, they organized a sit-in to demand justice for the 25 detainees who were not medically treated while they were in need immediately after the incident.
According to Marie Ange Noël, inmates were brutally beaten. Three of them had their period on the spot. “The prison officials did not allow us to drive the inmates to the hospital on time. In addition, they were sanctioned” continues Marie Ange Noël.
Pending a thorough investigation, Noël explains that precautionary measures have been taken with regard to four prison officers. They have been suspended.
Prolonged pretrial detention
This event illustrates the hardships suffered by women in Haitian prisons.
The 25 detainees in question are all in prolonged pretrial detention, that is to say, they have not yet been tried. Most detainees in Haiti are in this situation. Women are the most affected by this phenomenon.
There are nineteen prisons in the country. Only one of them is intended for women. It is the civil prison of Cabaret located in the West department. Thirteen of these prisons are mixed and men are the majority. The largest prison in the country, the civil prison of Port-au-Prince (national penitentiary), receives only men. Paradoxically, the data shows that statistically, women are the most affected by the phenomenon of prolonged pretrial detention which is rampant in these prisons.
On January 28, 2021, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) identified 10,625 men imprisoned throughout the country. 1,743 of these detainees were sentenced while 8,822 of them were in prolonged preventive detention.
At the same time, the organization counted 496 women in detention, 10 convicted and 396 in prolonged pretrial detention.
“Apparently more men are awaiting judgment. However, interpreting the numbers, 83.5% of men are in prolonged pretrial detention compared to 97.53% of women. That’s not news to anybody. In October 2020, among incarcerated men, there were 82.37% awaiting trial against 89.15% of women in the same situation” says Marie Rosy Auguste, Program Manager at RNDDH.
According to this lawyer, judges give special treatment to cases depending on whether it is a man or a woman. Also, when considering discharges, the judicial authorities generally investigate the case of incarcerated men. “They think that the urgency is on the side of men since there are more of them. But, the authorities do not realize that women are [statistically] more affected by prolonged pretrial detention”.
Violence of all kinds
But alongside preventive detention, Marie Rosy Auguste underlines that even in prison, women continue to suffer from the common forms of violence in a patriarchal society.
The lawyer argues that ideally there should be separate prisons that can accommodate men or women exclusively. In the case of mixed prisons, there should be a separation between the women’s bloc and the men’s bloc.
However, in mixed prisons in Haiti, women’s cells are close to those of men. In the event of an accident, these two groups of prisoners can meet. This is what happened in 2019 in the civil prison of Gonaïves where ten inmates, including a minor, were gang raped.
Formerly, prison officers maintained intimate relationships with inmates, adds Marie Rosy Auguste. In 2003, a young seventeen-year-old girl was impregnated by a Fort National prison officer. The case caused an uproar. The then Minister for Women’s Affairs, Ginette Rivière Lubin and feminist organizations denounced the incident to the press. “Feminists have campaigned for women to run women’s prisons. In Cabaret, a woman is responsible for the prison and the officers are mostly women”.
Moreover, women’s sexual and reproductive health is not considered in Haiti’s prisons. According to Marie Ange Noël from Fanm deside, religious and charitable associations provide sanitary napkins to inmates.
There is no way for these women’s health to be examined or conditions to be diagnosed. If, for example, a woman was diagnosed with cervical cancer before entering prison, there is no guarantee that she will be able to continue receiving treatment from her doctor.