US deportees in Haitian prisons. (Photo: Jacob Kushner/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)
Imposing coups, forcing fake elections, denying asylum claims, and kidnapping a president aren't enough subjugation for the US to carry out against Haiti. US built prisons are a death trap for thousands of people in that country.
Three prisoners in the US-built prison in Petit-Goâve, Haiti starved to death between August 23 and September 27, 2022. The website Haiti Libre reports, “…one of the deceased prisoners was from Léogâne imprisoned for having stolen an electric wire and… [another] from the 5th communal section of Petit-Goâve, was serving a prison sentence for having stole a rooster.” The vast majority of those imprisoned at Petit-Goâve and throughout the Haitian prison system have not yet been tried and convicted of a crime. In fact, of a prison population of 11,580 persons as of May, 2021, only 2,071 had been sentenced. Across Haiti, there were an estimated 80 to 100 prisoners who died of malnutrition and lack of medical care nationwide last year.
The United States has funded the construction of four prisons in Haiti since 2013. However, given its dominant influence over and funding of the Haitian National Police and its prison system, the US bears responsibility for the deplorable conditions that characterize all of Haitian jails today. Besides Petit-Goâve, the US-built prisons include Port Liberté for a cost of as much as $8 million, Hinche, at $1.34 million, and Cabaret, which, together with Petit Goâve, cost between $5 and $10 million. With 83% of the incarcerated awaiting trials that rarely come, and people lost in overcrowded cells for years, even the most minor offense can be a de facto death sentence.
It comes as no surprise that Haiti’s jails are connected to US Prison Imperialism, the spread of the US mass incarceration model across the Global South. The funding for US involvement in foreign prison systems is mainly funneled through the INL. The US State Department Bureau of International Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL) has programs that provide direct input and oversight in the police and national prison systems, including embedding INL personnel in some cases. The INL is the main funding source even when the US is involved in prisons in places like Saudi Arabia, which the State Department claims has no major role in narcotrafficking.
Though the patterns of abuse we see are all too typical, the levels at which they occur in Haiti are shocking. In Haiti, as in other countries, jail construction is justified on humanitarian concerns and the alleviation of overcrowding. Yet time after time, we see that the construction of more prisons just leads to more overcrowding, worsened conditions, and a spike in politically motivated arrests. Modern Prison Imperialism began in 2000, with an agreement between the US and Colombian governments to restructure their entire system on a US model. In the aftermath, political imprisonment reached the highest levels in the Americas, and overcrowding surged, rather than being alleviated. Throughout the system, the denial of access to potable water, sufficient and decent quality food, and basic healthcare was endemic.
Nevertheless, misery in jails can be lucrative for some. Somebody has to build those jails—and those somebodies are rarely if ever actual Haitian companies or workers. Among those who profit off US jail construction in Haiti is the firm Hollingsworth Pack, with its headquarters in Williamsburg, Virginia, and offices in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Copenhagen, Denmark. The corporation designed three of the four prisons built in Haiti since 2013, as well as three police stations and one police academy. The firm takes a special pride in cutting costs and keeping expenses down:
Regarding Fort Liberté:
“Through a cooperative effort with the local team members led by local architect Eduardo Castellon, local INL staff, and the Hollingsworth Pack US-based team, the design was refined to reduce costs and still provide the basic functions required.”
“The prison is designed under a very restrictive budget. The original target budget was $16,000 per bed, or a total construction cost excluding the site of under $5,000,000. Through a cooperative eﬀort with the local team members led by architect Eduardo Castellon, local INL staﬀ, and the Hollingsworth Pack US-based team, the design was reﬁned to reduce costs and still provide the basic functions required.”
And Goâve, where the three inmates died last year from starvation:
“High security compound on a budget….”
Hollingsworth Pack participates in much more than prison construction in Haiti. For instance, it constructed the Niamey Prison in Niger, known for its political incarcerations and miserable conditions that would sound all too familiar to the inmates of Haitian prisons. The Department of State notes that “The prisons of Niamey and Diffa were respectively designed to hold 445 and 100 persons, but in 2020 held 1,451 and 432 inmates, respectively…. Prison deaths occurred regularly, some from malaria, meningitis, tuberculosis, and COVID-19, but no statistics were available. Heavy rains and flash floods exacerbated a nationwide cholera outbreak suspected of causing a number of prison deaths.”
Haiti is a prime example of the endless circle of misery and profit characterized by the military-police-prison-charity-industrial complex. When it comes to hunger in US built Haitian prisons, the role played by the charity industry has a special irony. It bears to remember that through the 1980s, Haiti was able to provide for most of its own nutritional needs. However, the US government flooded Haiti with charity rice, from subsidized US farmers, crippling Haitian agriculture and forcing the country into dependency.
Fast forward to today. Health Through Walls is the main NGO asking for our contributions to help provide food and medical care to Haitian prisons. Among its major funders are the INL, the very organization most responsible for prison construction and police funding and direction in Haiti, and the American Correctional Association (ACA), which accredits prisons all over the world. The President of Health Through Walls is Dr. John P. May, MD, who “…is Chair of the International Corrections Committee of the American Correctional Association.” The ACA receives funding from the US as well as Saudi Arabian and other governments. (According to a report by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “The ACA also received funding from foreign governments for accreditation and training outside of the U.S. In fact, two of its top clients are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which respectively paid the ACA over $300,000 and $150,000 combined in the last five years.”)
It was the ACA that, after the US sponsored overthrow of Haiti’s President Jean Bertrand Aristide, “…assisted Haiti's National Penitentiary Administration… during a period of political instability in 2004…. ACA's first steps toward aiding the Haitian correctional system began… in a U.S. Government program that involved American correctional professionals working in Haiti.”
The reality is that the US has spent millions funding invasions, occupations, police militarization, and jail oversight and construction in Haiti, and throughout the world. Just in October, 2022, the US and Royal Canadian Air Forces shipped armored and tactical vehicles to the Haitian National Police. The US builds jail after jail in country after country, justified by promises of improved conditions; but the prison populations keep rising, and the conditions keep plummeting, setting up the vicious circle of calls for more prison construction to ease overcrowding, only to see the overcrowding worsen. If that is not enough, the Biden administration is considering sending Haitian detainees to Guantánamo.
Beyond the horror of starvation, how are prison conditions in Haiti? A 2022 State Department report states that:
“The DAP [Penitentiary Administration Department] reported most prisoners did not have two meals a day …. 83 prisoners died between January and September. Most deaths were caused by starvation and poor living conditions.
Medical care for prisoners was provided nearly exclusively by the NGO Health Through Walls…. There was inadequate medical care to stop the spread of infections such as tuberculosis or scabies. A cholera outbreak that began in September was especially dangerous….
Prisoners in many prisons and detention centers, including the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, did not have regular access to sanitary facilities and were required to relieve themselves in plastic bags that they had to purchase….
In some cases, detainees spent years in detention without appearing before a judge. According to estimates in September from BINUH, 83 percent of detainees were in unlawful pretrial detention….”
Henry Shuldiner, writing for Insight Crime, reports that, “Overcrowded prisons have worsened the food shortage. Those arrested are routinely imprisoned for several years before trial. They are "vulnerable to being lost in the system, being held without files of any kind to signal their presence in prison,” according to the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights….
As of May 2021, Haiti’s prison population was approximately 11,580, with just 2,071 prisoners sentenced for crimes, according to the brief submitted to the UNHCR… Prisons are holding more than three times their intended capacity.”
Given its role in creating these conditions, the US should be well aware of them; yet it continues to deport Haitian refugees, where upon arrival, many are immediately incarcerated. Between September 2021 and 2022, the Biden administration deported over 20,000 Haitians.
Shuldiner also tells us, “Recently, the Haitian government has been increasingly detaining criminal deportees from the United States upon arrival in Haiti. Haitian police have demanded thousands of dollars from prisoners' families for their release….
Patrick Julney, who has lived in the United States since he was a toddler, is one such prisoner. He was deported to Haiti in June 2022 and after his arrival, guards demanded $6,000 from his wife for his release, according to local news website NorthJersey.com. As of September 17, Julney is still detained in the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince.”
An article published in The Nation by Tanvi Misra elaborates further on the case:
“With roughly 40 men packed into the small space, he had no room to lie down. The men shared one toilet that lacked proper plumbing. Some of them would defecate into plastic bags and throw them out the window, right into the yard. The place reeked of sewage and human refuse and crawled with rats and bugs. The drinking water was filthy and made Julney sick. His body broke out with bumps and rashes, and his feet swelled up because of an untreated injury. The prison offered only a measly breakfast—anything else had to be bought from the commissary—so Julney kept on losing weight. It was almost inevitable, then, that as cholera cases started to surge across Haiti at the start of October, the national penitentiary became ground zero for the disease…. Julney could only watch as prison guards carried out the bodies of people who had died—including another US deportee, Roody Fogg…. In the months since, Julney has counted between 20 and 30 other US deportees inside, most of whom—like him—have not been formally charged with a crime in Haiti….”
The US government would have us believe that Haiti is a failed state and that the current crisis is a result of lawlessness and “gangs,” rather than have us see the more obvious truth: that the crisis in Haiti is a direct result of US imperialism. In February 2024, the world will mark the 20th anniversary of the US directed overthrow of the elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. Before that intervention, under Aristide, more schools had been built than in all of Haiti’s history, combined. He oversaw the building of the country’s first medical school and an unprecedented project to build social housing. The minimum wage was doubled while he was in office. Those accused of crimes were processed quickly, usually appearing before a judge within two days. These are just a few of the things that Haiti accomplished under its elected Pres. Aristide.
Dady Chery explains in the News Junkie Post that, “Haiti’s incarceration rate of roughly 100 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in 2016 was the lowest in the Caribbean. Nevertheless, there is a systematic campaign underway for more prisons. Canada and Norway have each given one prison to Haiti. Thanks to prison aid from the United States, three additional prisons have been inaugurated since 2016, and another is under construction.
… the large majority of Haiti’s prison population are pre-trial detainees…. If Haiti were to release them, the incarceration rate would drop to about 30 per 100,000, which is lower than in Norway, Sweden, or Japan. Furthermore, if we consider the fact that another group of incarcerated people are Haitian nationals who have lived as legal residents of the United States or Canada nearly all of their lives and committed crimes abroad, then the real incarceration rate of Haitians drops to one of the lowest in the world….
Haiti does not need more prisons, however, but fewer prisoners…
More and more, however, Cabaret Prison is taking on the aspect of a captive slave-labor camp…. More than 230 young Haitian women are already incarcerated there, several of whom had been arrested on UN bases merely for smoking marijuana….
… why should the US, with half a million homeless people, 10 percent of whom are veterans, care more for Haiti’s homelessness than for its own? ….The US incarceration rate in 2016 was a whopping 693 per 100,000: higher than any other country and more than four times that of any European country. The devastation on the Black population, where one in three newborn males may expect to become imprisoned, has been unspeakable….”
In 2013 Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report clarified further,
“The new penitentiaries will be constructed under the auspices of none other than the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy to Haiti.… The U.S. embassy says it wants… [Haitian prisons] up to international standards.
The United States, itself, has never paid much attention to international standards when it comes to prisons…. On any given day, 50,000 to 80,000 U.S. prison inmates are held in solitary confinement… a form of torture according to most international standards. Violence in U.S. prisons is endemic, especially rape. Through its sheer size, alone – encompassing one out of every four prison inmates on the planet – the U.S. prison Gulag contains the greatest concentrations of prison evils in the world. The U.S. serves as an example of how not to treat prisoners, and how not to treat Black people, who are far more likely to wind up in U.S. prisons at some point in their lives. But, the United States somehow thinks it has something to teach Black people in Haiti about prisons.”
Indeed, we hear that in September 2022, even as three Black individuals were dying of hunger in Haiti, in a jail in Fulton County Georgia, Lashawn Thompson, a 35 year old Black man arrested on misdemeanor charges was, according to Michael Harper, the lawyer representing his family, “eaten alive by insects and bed bugs.” Thompson was in the jail’s psychiatric facility where he was supposed to be checked on every two hours. Harper maintains, “There is no way that this man was being monitored every two hours. It seems like he wasn’t monitored for months. His body was riddled with insect bites and his whole body was filled with these sores. It’s just a despicable display.
The US is playing by an old playbook. It is a playbook honed by years of racist and classist repression at home and sharpened even further by military adventurism abroad. It is the playbook of intervention, sanctions, occupations, transnational corporate theft and exploitation, misery-for-profit construction companies and charities, militarized police, jails, dependency—domination.
Even now, what is being dismissed as gang-fueled chaos might be more correctly described as the resultant chaos of a country torn apart by foreign interventions, as well as, at least in part, a spontaneous uprising of anger in a country that is constantly broken and undermined and denied democratic development and self-determination by the US and its allies in Canada, France, and elsewhere. They want to maintain Haiti permanently under the imperial boot heel. As far as the US is concerned, Haiti will never be free. But truly, Haiti will never be subjugated. As poor and besieged as the island may be, its people have never given up, never surrendered, and every attempt by foreign powers to dominate Haiti has been either thrown off or disintegrated into chaos.
James Patrick Jordan lives in Tucson, Arizona and and works for the Alliance for Global Justice. Along with Colombia's Fundación Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity Foundation), he has co-coordinated efforts to inform about and resist Prison Imperialism, the international spread of the US mass incarceration model. AFGJ and FLD are compiling an anthology on the subject that will be available in early 2024.