COVID-19 has reached Haiti’s overcrowded prisons. Some fear a human rights disaster

In this Sept. 3, 2014, photo, a technician drills cable for a camera control through the principal gate of the main prison in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti. Dieu Nalio Chery AP PHOTO

By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald, May 27, 2020

With COVID-19 infections spiking in Haiti, where fevers are quickly spreading inside the country’s overcrowded prisons, hundreds of inmates risk dying of the novel coronavirus, the government’s chief ombudsman says.

And so far, the government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it.

“They are turning a deaf ear,” said Renan Hédouville, director of the national Office for the Protection of Citizens.

Haiti has confirmed 1,174 cases of COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the virus, and 33 deaths so far. Of the confirmed infections, 11 are inmates at the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, the director of the prison system confirmed to the Miami Herald.

Hédouville and other human rights watchers, however, believe the number of infections is far greater given the overcrowded, inadequate infrastructure and irregular supply of food and essential medication to meet basic inmates’ needs. Inhumane conditions inside the teeming prison and provincial jails mean 20, 40, even 80 prisoners are often crammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside poorly ventilated, filthy cells that defy acceptable international norms of 14.8 feet of prison area per person.

With the areas of some cells sometimes no more than about six feet by six feet on average and an inmate population of 10,666, Haiti’s prison system is one of the world’s most crowded, with an occupancy rate of 330 percent.

“In practically all of the prisons, there are dozens of prisoners suffering from a fever, but we can’t say for certain it’s COVID-19,” Hédouville said. “The director general of the ministry of public health recently said that once someone has a fever it’s coronavirus. That’s what’s creating the headache. The National Penitentiary already has dozens of prisoners who have a fever; Petit Goave, where prisoners are kept in a police station ... and living in cruel conditions, they have a fever; in the Croix-des-Bouquets prison there are about 30 prisoners with a fever.”

Charles Nazaire Noël, the director of Haiti’s prison administration, said the 11 prisoners at the National Penitentiary are being kept in an area that they had used to treat cholera, away from the others.

Other than isolating those who are ill, “there is nothing we can do,” he said as far as enforcing social distancing inside the prisons.

“The state of Haiti has to take its responsibility,” he said. “We are holding the prisoners for the Haitian state. What we do is reports, request and we explain the situation.”

Noël refused to acknowledge that inmates were feverish due to COVID-19, which has started to surge in Haiti. He also downplayed reports there was “a fever epidemic” despite having described it as such in a local radio interview earlier this month.

“I wouldn’t call it a fever epidemic; there are some cases of a fever among prisoners in other prisons,” Noël told the Herald. “It’s not only during coronavirus that we’ve discovered fever in the prisons. It’s something that’s habitual. I can’t assume just because someone has a fever it’s coronavirus.”

Dr. Jean William “Bill” Pape, who is co-president of the president’s commission on COVID-19 response along with the director general of the health ministry, said he heard on social media that some prisoners had “a fever-type” illness and the health ministry is investigating.

“At present, the COVID-19 disease is so prevalent in Port-au-Prince, that you do not need to be tested anymore,“ Pape said. “All patients presenting with the COVID-19 symptoms have over 80 percent probability to have it. Hence a clinical definition is essential. This was the case for cholera in Haiti and most recently with COVID-19 in New York.”

Pape said the national laboratory and GHESKIO, the health center he founded, continue to perform daily tests and are awaiting additional kits in order to decentralize testing nationwide.

Concerns of a COVID-19 outbreak in prisons isn’t isolated to Haiti. Amnesty International has raised concerns about prisons in Colombia and the Dominican Republic as infections in both countries skyrocket.


Posted May 28, 2020