It took three days of searching along Delmas Street, Port-au-Prince’s snarled, exhaust-choked main thoroughfare, before Sebastian Petion found him. Petion knew what section of Delmas Street Martin Frantsane worked. The other street kids agreed to tell Frantsane—if they saw him—to call Petion. But Frantsane never rang. Finally, late one evening—while sidestepping roadside hawkers selling rice and beans and stalks of raw sugar cane, and peering into faces that, once out of the illumination of car beams, dissolve, sylphlike, into the night—Petion spies his man.
“Heh, zanmi. Komon ou ye, ca va?” Petion asks in Creole, touching fist to clenched fist, the Haitian gesture of respect.
Petion tells Frantsane he wants him to meet someone, and he promises the rawboned teen a meal. Frantsane falls in beside Petion, dodging the peddlers, potholes, and jags of broken cement that threaten to trip them up.
Frantsane, 17, with bloodshot eyes and leathery skin, is not happy to meet a journalist at an open-air restaurant just off Delmas Street. Petion orders for him: two servings of spicy chicken, rice and beans, and beer. Frantsane glances up suspiciously when he isn’t staring down at the plastic tablecloth. When the food arrives, Frantsane picks up the metal knife and fork. Clearly, he has no idea what to do with them, and opts to eat with his hands. Normally, Frantsane says softly in Creole, which Petion translates into English, he eats food picked up off the streets.
Frantsane isn’t just another street kid—he is also a survivor of Port-au-Prince’s Boys’ Detention Centre Delmas 33. It is where Petion, a volunteer counsellor at the jail, first met Frantsane. Once an army facility, Delmas 33 was turned over to the Haitian Prison Service in 1995 and used to incarcerate adults. Then, in 2004, when populist president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown and the country exploded in incendiary gang violence and police crackdowns, officers began mass arrests of street kids and gang members. Boys ranging in age from eight to 16 were held at Delmas 33, often without knowing what they were charged with and never seeing a lawyer or the inside of a courtroom.
Frantsane was 15 when he was arrested. An arson fire had levelled a street market and police responded by rounding up the urchins who lived and slept along Delmas Street. Frantsane was one of them.
What was the criminal charge?
“I don’t know.”
Did you have a defence lawyer?
Who could you complain to?
After two years and three months, Frantsane was released. Why then? He shrugs. Maybe even God didn’t know.
According to Mariavittoria Ballotta, a UNICEF-Haiti child protection officer, Frantsane’s case is the norm rather than the exception: 95 percent of the children behind bars in the Caribbean nation are in such pretrial limbo, called “preventive custody”. A Haitian law, passed in 1961, forbids preventive custody and calls for educational rehabilitation—not jail—for juveniles. However, decades of economic and political instability in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, including brutal dictatorships, gang violence, corruption, and coups, have reduced rule of law in Haiti to, at best, lip service.
Such penal purgatory is not only a violation of Haitian law, it is also a breach of UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Haiti ratified in 1994, Ballotta says. The convention states that the imprisonment of children should be used “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
It is simple, in Haiti, to make an arrest virtually without cause. Thirty percent of the system’s young inmates are accused of association de malfaiteurs, or association with a criminal group. It is a charge that is easily made and difficult to dispute, Ballotta says by phone from her office in Port-au-Prince. Some charges, like theft, are legitimate; youngsters stole chickens or goats because they were hungry, or they pilfered items such as motorcycle parts. Others are accused of violent crimes like rape, kidnapping, attempted murder, or murder. Five percent of the children behind bars are serving sentences and are kept with the kids awaiting trial—something unheard-of in the West. Rarely are the families of the young inmates informed that they are behind bars, says Ballotta, who is overseeing a new UNICEF-Haiti program that provides the youngsters with free legal representation.
Delmas 33 is a one-storey, blue-and-white facility crowned with rolls of barbed wire. When the Georgia Straight was granted entry in late 2008, there were 199 male children and teenagers behind bars living in four cells measuring about four by five metres. A ripe barnyard smell came from the dim holes, which contained white buckets that the boys used as a toilet during the night. Food containers had been left on the boys’ mattresses: plastic buckets cut down into bowls.
That morning, classes were under way off to the side of a rectangular courtyard containing a basketball net. Blackboards divided small clusters of boys—grouped according to grade—seated at rough wooden tables in the shade of an overhang. Several students in their mid-teens, seated at the Grade 1 table, looked both bored and confused. Discipline was being meted out to one teen, who had been forced to kneel on the cement, his head bowed under the scorching Caribbean sun, his body rigid with rage.
Only 15 inmates were serving sentences; 173 of them had made their first court appearance before a judge; and 11 had not yet seen a judge, according to the warden, Insp. Paul Colson Heurtelou, a courteous but stern man dressed in head-to-toe black and sporting grizzled, shorn hair and a wispy mustache.
Another Haitian law dictates that only specially appointed juvenile judges, based in Port-au-Prince, can oversee cases pertaining to minors. This means that accused juveniles from outside the capital must be moved to Delmas 33 to be seen by one of the two Ministry of Justice–appointed judges. It is an impossible load for two judges, and the overcrowding and backlog at Delmas 33 are creating long waiting times for youngsters who are imprisoned in adult jails all over the country, Ballotta says.
This past May, the number of prisoners at Delmas 33 had risen to 303 and included an eight-year-old inmate, says Canadian Marie-Claude Fournier, a lawyer who visited the prison while investigating Haitian prison conditions for the Washington, D.C.–based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of the American States. Last month, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti reported that 307 minors were being detained elsewhere in the country: 268 boys and 39 girls. (Female juveniles are ultimately sent to await trial or serve sentences at the women’s prison in the Pétionville district of Port-au-Prince.)
The vast number of homeless and orphaned children in Port-au-Prince means there will never be a shortage of inmates at Delmas 33, Ballotta says. Statistics from 2004 put the number of Port-au-Prince street children at 2,500. However, Ballotta says, there are at least double that number now, due in part to last year’s hurricanes that displaced 60,000 people from the devastated city of Gonaí¯ves, north of Port-au-Prince. With Delmas 33 bursting at the seams, Ballotta says, some children who break the law are sent instead to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince called Carrefour Centre. The centre houses 400 male children and teens, all of whom are under the care of four social workers. “There are hygiene problems, no water, poor nutrition, no education, and no life plans for these children,” Ballotta says. Carrefour Centre, she adds, is one of about 500 orphanages in Haiti—some are licensed, some are not. All told, they warehouse about 50,000 children “who are all at risk of ending up at Delmas 33”, Ballotta says.
Other than the nervous chewing of his fingernails, Ricardo Dorzil is listless, due not only to the midday heat but to the fact that he hasn’t eaten since yesterday. Dorzil, too, did time at Delmas 33—four years and three months in total. Dorzil was attending school in Port-au-Prince when riots erupted following the overthrow of Aristide early in 2004. Like many students, Dorzil stopped going to class as tires burned in the streets and rioters smashed the windows of businesses. Police reacted violently—and with impunity. While he watched, two of Dorzil’s schoolmates, who were throwing rocks in the street, were gunned down. “A police officer was driving by, shooting people,” Dorzil says.
In the ensuing chaos, Dorzil came under the arm of a drug-trafficking gang in a slum of Port-au-Prince called Village de Dieu. He was taught to shoot a nine-millimetre handgun and became part of the gang’s two-vehicle convoys used to transfer cocaine and marijuana. Five males would ride in each car. Dorzil was in the rear vehicle, behind the car carrying suitcases of drugs. If police appeared, his job was to protect the stash by opening fire. At one shootout, he hit an officer in the leg. “I didn’t feel bad, because it was a cop,” he says.
Shortly afterward, Dorzil was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. He was taken to Delmas 33 and put in a cell with 47 other boys. Breakfast, he recalls, was la bouillie, a gruel made by mixing water, flour, and sugar. Rice was served at the other meals. There were sexual assaults, too, he recalls, “but not in my cell”. He says he saw guards beat and slap some of the boys. Despite all this, the memory that gnaws the most is that of hunger. “Whatever they give you, it’s not enough,” he says.
More than four years later, Dorzil finally had his day in court, appearing before a judge and jury at the Palace of Justice in Port-au-Prince. Before the day was out, the judge dropped the charges. Why? Dorzil shrugs and says, “God saved me.”
In the Haitian justice system, God works in not-so-mysterious ways. Due to the low literacy levels of police, written evidence often cannot withstand rigorous court scrutiny. Or judges are bribed to release the accused, says Brian Concannon, director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Training the police force to become more professional is an enormous challenge that is being addressed by the international community, including Canada, which sends Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Corrections Canada personnel to Haiti. One of the reasons the prison system is being overwhelmed is that police are making more arrests rather than dispensing frontier justice with fists or a bullet as they have in the past, says Concannon, whose organization works closely with Haiti’s leading human-rights lawyer, Mario Joseph, and the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a public-interest law office in Port-au-Prince. “The police are moving to something more closely resembling rule of law,” Concannon says. “But the justice system hasn’t made the changes it needs to keep pace.”
Concannon says that judges need support and training to help them learn to process cases more quickly and efficiently. But corruption must also be cleaned up. “There is a corruption racket in Haiti,” Concannon says. “People are held for long periods of time without the opportunity to have their day in court. This creates a market for bribes. Often judges are hiding behind poor record-keeping and poor training.”
Canadian Hugh Locke is the New York–based president of Yéle Haiti, a nongovernmental organization that has worked hard at introducing rehabilitation programs into Delmas 33. When Yéle Haiti, the brainchild of Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, was started after the fall of Aristide in 2004, there were no health programs, education, or vocational training at Delmas 33. Efforts by Yéle Haiti have improved conditions: the boys are receiving schooling and training in woodworking and tailoring so they have an alternative to crime upon their release. Locke deems the inmates “child soldiers”, similar to youngsters in war-torn countries who are strong-armed by paramilitary groups to join their violent causes. He says that the international community has acknowledged that such children are not lost causes and can become law-abiding, contributing members of society with psychosocial support and counselling.
Additional training for judges and police and new prison programs, however innovative and well-intentioned, don’t address the fact that what these children and teens need the most is a home where they are loved and supported, fed, and educated. Dorzil, for example, was taken under the wing of former Yéle Haiti president Maryse Pénette-Kedar, who supports him, along with four others, in one of her homes in Pétionville. Pénette-Kedar pays for Dorzil’s upkeep and his high-school fees. “I could not put him back on the streets knowing he had no support,” says Pénette-Kedar, the former secretary of state to Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism.
Dorzil is receiving—thanks to the philanthropy of Pénette-Kedar—the support that orphaned and wayward youths obtain from the state in western nations. However, a social-services system is virtually nonexistent in Haiti. “I’ve talked to judges, and lots of kids are put in jail because the judges don’t know what to do with them,” Concannon says.
It will be a long time before rule of law gains a foothold in Haiti. Until that happens, children will be warehoused in conditions that defy the imagination of most westerners. Frantsane was not one of the ones who benefited from Pénette-Kedar’s generosity. “We save who we can save,” she says frankly. For Frantsane, the time behind bars was a cruel ordeal; its impact is reflected in the sadness and hopelessness in his eyes. Having eaten his fill, Frantsane murmurs something in Creole to Petion, who waves the waiter over. The leftovers are returned in a Styrofoam container so that Frantsane can take them to his street friends. As Frantsane leaves, he doesn’t look back and wanders away until he dissolves, sylphlike, into the night.