Our visit to the Prison in Hinche yesterday was unlike anything I have ever experienced. In fact, the 3-4 hour drive each way was an experience in itself. Hinche was supposedly “2.5” hours from Port-au-Prince and we planned to leave at 9 a.m. Of course, 9am means 10am in HST (Haitian Standard Time). And invariably there would be at least three –four stops: to fill up the air in the tires, to pick up an unexpected guide, and to stop at Digicel to buy a new cell phone since the first one we bought did not work. Expect the unexpected. Although we got lost several times, I am happy our drivers were Haitian men who were not embarrassed to stop and ask for directions to the prison at least 10 times. If we had been with stubborn American men who refuse to ask for directions we could have been in the Dominican Republic now instead of back in Port-au-Prince.
The scenery throughout the ride was stunning. The panoramic view scanned rolling hills and palm trees against a sapphire lake called “Glo Gayes” that was dotted with uninhabited islands. The actual ride reminded me of the many hours I spent in a tro-tro this summer in Ghana. Most of the roads were unpaved with rubble and piles of garbage lining the edges. Probably unaware of the negative environmental impact, trash piles were being burned by villages to remove the garbage. This is something that I sadly have found common among Third World countries. Women carried bowls of water or items to sell on their heads with an impressive ease that I could never imitate. Our driver used the horn even more than Ghanian taxi drives, simply to warn people that we were coming around the bend or just to be friendly. Traffic in the Port-au-Prince suburbs was also reminiscent of the hours I spent in the tro-tro in Ghana. Cars, trucks, vans, tap-tap’s (the Haitian bus service), scooters, bikes and individuals were moving in every direction on every street causing intense gridlock. One truck even attempted to cross the narrow road we were driving on in a diagonal fashion, creating a throng of Haitians that needed to direct the truck in the dark through the surrounding cars to unlock the mess. Expect the unexpected. Oddly enough, this scene gave me a sense of community and willingness to help each other that I don’t often see in New York. This ride really made me realize that I can never predict what will happen next in Haiti.
When we finally arrived at the Hinche Prison we were welcomed by the Prison officials. Our interview focused on preventative measures taken by the prison to prevent or contain the outbreak of cholera. After the interview the official took us for a tour of the prison. The entire prison compound was approximately 30 meters by 20 meters. The prison had just three cells for 163 people, with the largest cell holding almost 90 prisoners. Each cell was meant to hold 20 people. We also got to see the white tent in the middle of the prison compound where the Cholera symptomatic prisoners are quarantined. Interestingly enough, we learned in later interviews today that prisoners actually started to pretend that they had cholera or that they were still sick when they in fact had been cured. We certainly were not expecting to hear this. This was because the quarantine tent is separated from the prison cells. It is more spacious and the sick prisoners are fed well to help regain their health. We now understand --why wouldn’t the prisoners want to be there instead of in the overcrowded cells? Moreover, some of the prisons were giving the quarantined prisoners nutritional biscuits that were of value to the prisoners; not only were they better than any of the food the prisoners received in the cells, but they could be sold for a better space in the cell or for another advantage in the underground prison hierarchy.
Talk about expecting the unexpected, the interaction between the prison official and the prisoners appeared friendly to say the least. When he led us to the cells, he gave the prisoners a “pound” through the gate and they immediately were silenced. The prisoners called him “Papa,” and they told us he was very good to them. Unfortunately though, the minors were in the same cell with the adults, a violation of human rights law that raises a concern of vulnerability. The minors are susceptible to being taken advantage of by the elders, either mentally, physically or sexually. Furthermore, when we asked the prison official about HIV/AIDS education to the prisoners he became uncomfortable. Ritha told us that men having sex with men is very “taboo” in Haiti. Thus, the prisoners are not educated about using condoms or even about sharing needles, something very concerning given the extremely close proximity of the inmates.
When we left the prison, we were asked to clean our hands and the bottom of our shoes with water treated with Chlorine. This was a procedure that international aid organizations had educated the prison officials in Hinche about to prevent the spread of Cholera in the prison. It was nice to see that at least the Hinche prison was carrying out and following these procedures dutifully.
The official then brought us to the new prison being built next door which would likely not be done until phase two is completed in 5 months. This prison will be a significant advancement from the current one. The new prison has 190 cells for men, each cell holding up to only 8 prisoners. Across the courtyard, there will be enough cells for up to 300 additional women and minors. The new prison also will have flushing toilets in each cell, a vocational center for rehabilitation and to teach the prisoners trades and skills, and a medical center. Although phase two is supposed to be finished in 5 months, it will be dependent on the upcoming elections. I have finally learned to expect the unexpected. I do hope the new prison will be completed within the year though.
Today our meeting with the Red Cross was extremely informative and eye-opening. We spoke with a doctor and other relief workers that are focused on the Cholera outbreak in the 18 prisons throughout Haiti. They were an exceptional part of the relief effort in containing, curing, and preventing the further spread of Cholera in Haiti. Of the 6,000 people in Haitian prisons, 665 people were diagnosed with Cholera and 64 died. This means the case-fatality rate was 9.4%, a relatively low number given the unsanitary conditions of the prisons and the lack of prison resources, oversight, and knowledge about Cholera here in Haiti.
One thing in our meeting today stands out in my mind in particular – I certainly did not expect to learn this. When we questioned the prison official yesterday at Hinche about the measures implemented to clean and disinfect the cells, we were told that the prisoners brought their mattresses out into the courtyard to bake in the sun which would kill the bacteria. We must have all looked at the official incredulously because he repeated his answer again. We still hadn’t learned to expect the unexpected and after the interview, we all discussed how shocked we were at this “ridiculous” old wives tale. Did the prison officials really believe the sun could kill bacteria? During our interview with the Red Cross today, they told us it was at times difficult to educate Haitian people about how Cholera was spread and how to prevent it because some people believe that it is spread by God. Others believe that the voodoo priests here in Haiti cursed them with Cholera. I decided this was a perfect time to also mention the sun-bathing mattress cure-all and ask the Red Cross how they respond to these beliefs without being insensitive. The Red Cross leaders looked at me and smiled. I thought I must have asked an important question until they told me that it actually was a very effective preventative measure to put the mattresses in the sun because the UV rays have the ability to kill certain bacteria if they are first washed off properly. I think our entire Cholera Team felt pretty embarrassed that we were so sure this technique was ridiculous and that we questioned the prison official’s response. Ritha then learned that her Haitian grandmother’s remedy to add lemon to water to as a purification technique, something that she had dismissed as a myth for her entire life, was also useful because the lemon acid kills certain bacteria in the water. Western medicine has made me forget that sometimes the best remedies are those seemingly silly things my grandmothers taught me as kids. How many times do I have to be reminded that I should not expect or judge things here in Haiti?
We have so much more in store for us this week – visits to other prisons, meetings with other government officials, and of course the possible return of Aristide on Thursday that could affect the Presidential elections scheduled for this Sunday. Last year one of the Haitian Pastor’s we worked with said that as we grow and succeed in our legal and political careers he hoped Haiti will forever hold a special place in our hearts. I knew this would be true from the moment he said it, but the work and experiences I have had thus far on this trip have certainly solidified those feelings. I also will always remember to come to Haiti with an open mind and expect the unexpected