Haiti: Inhumane prison conditions demand urgent action – Bachelet

Geneva, June 30, 2021.- Prisoners in Haiti often spend years in inhumane conditions subjected to ill-treatment and torture and in many cases while still awaiting trial, according to a new UN report published on Wednesday.

The report  by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti and the UN Human Rights Office, documents detention conditions and the treatment of detainees. It calls for solutions to be implemented urgently to address detention conditions as well as the high number of people in pre-trial detention.

The report is based on visits by UN staff to 12 detention facilities between January and March 2021, where they conducted individual interviews with 229 men, women and children deprived of their liberty.

The report notes that the excessive use of pre-trial detention, coupled with the judicial system’s limited capacity to try criminal cases promptly, has led to a bottleneck in bringing people before a court, and consequent overcrowding of detention facilities. Currently, 82 per cent of people deprived of their liberty in Haiti have not been convicted.

The report details how in some instances up to 60 people are crammed into spaces measuring just 20 square metres, leaving them unable to even lie down on the floor to sleep. Some cells are windowless, leaving inmates in darkness for hours; and the lack of latrines forces prisoners to relieve themselves in buckets. In addition, inmates are often kept in their cells for almost 24 hours a day, either because there is no exercise yard or as a security measure.

In most of the detention centres, inmates do not have access to adequate medical care and medicines, leaving them at risk should there be a medical emergency, and reliant on help from family members.

Cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is routinely used as a disciplinary measure in all the prisons visited, including against children, the report notes.

Of the inmates interviewed, 27.9 per cent said they had been ill-treated by prison officers or by inmates with the acquiescence of guards, and 44.5 per cent said they had witnessed mistreatment.

The report acknowledges that the State has taken some steps to reduce the use of pre-trial detention, including by adopting the Criminal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedures, which will enter into force in June 2022. These have the potential to reduce the prison population by promoting alternative measures to detention.

“These are important steps in the right direction, but they will take time to achieve their intended effects. In the meantime, the Government should take active measures to address the conditions in which people are being detained,” said Bachelet.

“The authorities should also take steps to reduce the overall number of people in detention, including by granting early or provisional release of low-risk individuals, people who are charged with minor offences, pregnant women, minors and those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 or associated diseases,” she added.

While the initial spread of COVID-19 in Haiti was limited, cases are now rapidly increasing across the country, including in the prison population. In recent weeks, over 500 detainees in the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince have had fever, diarrhoea and other COVID-19 symptoms. In May alone, 16 inmates died there of health complications. The lack of a proper testing strategy for people deprived of their liberty prevents the authorities and others from determining the true level of COVID-19 infections in prisons.

The conditions documented in the report, including the high degree of overcrowding, the lack of ventilation and access to fresh air, as well as the limited access to water, sanitation and medical assistance, risk making it very difficult to control the spread of the virus.

Bachelet reiterated her willingness to increase her collaboration with the Haitian authorities to work towards improving the challenging human rights situation in the country.

The High Commissioner also called upon the Haitian Government to create a national mechanism to prevent torture, and to ratify the UN Convention against Torture as well as its Optional Protocol.

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