PORT-AU-PRINCE – An official said Thursday that at least eight inmates have died at an overcrowded prison in Haiti that ran out of food two months ago, adding to dozens of similar deaths this year as the country’s institutions crumble.
Hunger and oppressive heat contributed to the inmates’ deaths reported this week by the prison in the southwest city of Les Cayes, Ronald Richemond, the city’s government commissioner, told The Associated Press. He said the prison houses 833 inmates.
“Whoever can help should help immediately because the prisoners are in need," he said.
The United Nations Security Council released a report last week saying 54 prison deaths related to malnutrition were documented in Haiti between January and April alone in the country of more than 11 million people.
It urged Haiti’s government “to take the necessary measures to find a long-lasting solution to the prison food, water and medicine crisis.”
The country's severely overcrowded prison system has long struggled to provide food and water to inmates. It blames insufficient government funds and the problem has worsened in recent months, leading to a new rise in severe malnutrition and deaths.
By law, prisons in Haiti are required to provide inmates with water and two meals a day, which usually consist of porridge and a bowl of rice with fish or some type of meat.
But in recent months, inmates have been forced to rely solely on friends or family for food and water, and many times they are unable to visit because gang-related violence makes some areas impassable, said Michelle Karshan, co-founder of the nonprofit Health through Walls, which provides health care in Haiti’s prisons.
The nonprofit joined three other organizations this year to feed the roughly 11,000 inmates in Haiti’s 20 prisons for three months, helping at a time when the country was increasingly unstable following the July 7 killing of President Jovenel Moïse.
But the situation has since deteriorated.
“These deaths are very painful,” she said. “The internal organs start to fail one by one. ... It’s a horrible thing to witness.”
Health through Walls has launched several programs to target the problem long term, including starting a garden at a prison in northern Haiti that produces spinach and other crops, along with a chicken coop and a fish farm.
“But that’s one prison,” Karshan said. “The bottom line is the prison system has to take responsibility. They can’t sit back. ... They’re the government.”
Les Cayes and other cities in Haiti’s southern region also have been affected by a spike in gang violence that has blocked the main roads leading out of Haiti’s capital, making it extremely difficult to distribute food and other supplies to the rest of the country, said Pierre Espérance, executive director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network.
In addition, a water pump that the Les Cayes prison relies on has long been broken, forcing relatives and friends of inmates to carry buckets of water from long distances, Richemond said.
Les Cayes, like surrounding cities, is also still struggling to recover from a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck southwest Haiti in August, killing more than 2,200 people and destroying or damaging thousands of buildings.
Richemond said some of the prison cells were destroyed and have not been rebuilt, forcing authorities to cram even more people into a smaller space.
The cell occupancy rate in Haiti stands at more than 280% of capacity, with 83% of inmates stuck in pretrial detentions that in some cases can drag on for more than a decade before an initial court appearance, according to the U.N. Many prisoners take turns sleeping on the floor while others simply stand or try to make hammocks and attach them to cell windows, paying someone to keep their spot.
In January 2010, some 400 detainees at the prison in Les Cayes rioted to protest the worsening conditions. Authorities said police killed at least 12 inmates, and up to 40 others were wounded.
Espérance, with the National Human Rights Defense Network, blamed the current situation on the government and said officials need to impose rule of law.
“The situation is getting worse every day,” he said. “They can only fix the problem for one or two weeks. After that, the problem will continue. Today, it’s Les Cayes. Tomorrow, it could be somewhere else.”
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.