Women escape from Haiti prison, gangs help by blocking roads, shoot at police trying to respond
Dozens of female inmates were on the run in Haiti after escaping Thursday from the country’s only prison for women, after police were prevented from getting to the facility because a gang blocked access roads.
“The situation is confirmed,” Pierre René, a Haiti National Police prison official, told the Miami Herald on Thursday afternoon. “There is a huge tension at the prison.”
By 7:30 p.m. police still had not been able to get inside the prison and were awaiting reinforcements to see if they could get past the gang.
Several sources confirm that at least one police officer was injured, possibly killed, and at least one female prisoner died during the incident. Initial reports indicated that most of the women housed at the facility located in Cabaret, just north of Port-au-Prince, escaped. At the time of the incident there were 230 women inside the prison.
A source told the Herald that the female inmates tied up security officers on duty and opened the gates. The nearby police substation in Titanyen responded to the incident, but while officers were on their way, gang members from nearby Canaan attacked the police station and set it on fire.
The gangs continued blocking the road to the prison and shooting at police. Officers were trying to see if they could get to the prison from Arcahaie, the town north of the prison.
A video showed several women running through the barren mountains of nearby Titanyen while the sound of gunshots was heard in the background.
Human rights activists and others have been anticipating some kind of prison break inside the country’s penal system, as prisoners have been dying from lack of food and drinking water and diseases spreading inside the overcrowded system. But the concerns were mainly focused on the National Penitentiary near downtown Port-au-Prince and the Civil Prison in Croix-des-Bouquets, where a powerful gang has been wreaking havoc for months.
Earlier this month, however, four inmates died within two days at the prison in Jacmel in southern Haiti, and earlier this week, a local radio station in Gonaives launched a drive for help for the prison in that rural city. Residents were warned that prisoners would die if food didn’t arrive quickly.
“All of the food for the prisoners is gone,” station owner Dieulifaite Sejour said in his appeal. If food wasn’t provided, he said, “the prisoners will die from hunger because all of the roads are blocked and officials in Port-au-Prince cannot resupply it.
The female prison in Cabaret, where in some cases women were held with their babies, had come to rely for provisions on grassroots organizations and a local church.
Volunteers provide rice, beans and even basic necessities like buckets, mops and detergent for the women inside. Among the provisions the women most ask for are feminine hygiene products and toilet paper, said a volunteer with Haiti Awake, a local organization that has been unable to visit in the last two years because of increasing gang violence and carjackings along the national highway connecting Port-au-Prince to Cabaret.
Femmes à Aimer (Women to Love), a local organization founded by Haitian composer and guitarist BélO, also has been supporting women at the prison. The singer, who has been closely monitoring developments, visits the prison often, even performing for the women on holidays like Valentine’s Day and bringing them supplies.
“What happened doesn’t surprise me,” MarieYolène Gilles, an activist who runs the human rights group Fondasyon Je Klere, Eyes Wide Open Foundation, said about the Cabaret prison break. “It can happen anywhere in the country. We’ve just emerged from a two-week lockdown where the prisoners were suffering; no one was available to bring them food, to give them anything. Even the guards were affected.”
For months, Gilles has been criticizing the sordid and often inhumane conditions in prisons across Haiti’s 18 jurisdictions. In most cases, prisoners have been in prolonged pretrial detention, never having gone before a judge or been officially charged. In many cases, they have been in jail for longer than the sentences they would have received if convicted.
“All of the prisons across 18 jurisdictions have been suffering from no food, no electricity, no gas, no water,” Gilles said.
Haiti has been slowly emerging from widespread violent protests that brought Port-au-Prince and several surrounding cities to a halt after the government announced a hike in fuel prices. While some protests were peaceful, other protesters blocked roads with fiery barricades and looted businesses, schools and charity warehouses.
On Thursday as the situation was unfolding in Cabaret, concerns were also growing in Port-auPrince where the available fuel in pumps was quickly depleting. Since Saturday, the G-9 gang coalition, led by a former cop-turned-gang leader, Jimmy Cherizier, known as “Barbecue,” had been preventing fuel trucks from departing the Varreux terminal to deliver more than 188,000 barrels of gas, diesel and propane to nearly empty fuel pumps.
In a video released Thursday, Cherizier, standing in front of burning tires behind a barricade at the port, denied accusations that he had been paid by the government to break up the recent protests and invited the population to come join him.
“We are the movement,” he said, holding up an automatic rifle. “You will get access to the terminal when we die.”