Restorative justice and the prison system in Haiti

[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Haiti’s prison system is considered one the world’s worst. In 2018, the World Prison Brief ranked Haiti’s prisons as the world’s most overcrowded, at 4.5 times over capacity. With less than 0.5 square meters of space available to each inmate, prisoners must sleep in shifts. Despite Haitian laws to the contrary, children are often housed with adults in prison. This crowding, combined with underfunding, frequently leads to preventable deaths from malnutrition, violence and disease. Additionally, due to a dysfunctional and overburdened judicial system, most of Haiti’s 11,000 prisoners have never been tried for a crime and many do not even know the crimes for which they stand accused. According to the Haitian Directorate of Prisons, 74% of prisoners (including 82% of women and 95% of girls) have not had their cases heard before a judge. Without the ability to pay for a lawyer and court fees, even innocent people languish in prison for years.

One 18-year-old, recently released through the intervention of an MCC-supported project, had been in prison for four years without seeing his family, a lawyer or a judge after getting into a fist fight on the street as a 14-year-old. Unfortunately, regardless of actual guilt, the future of people released from prison in Haiti is especially challenging. The cultural stigma associated with imprisonment means that released prisoners are often cut off from family, friends and community. Without these essential supports in place, the recidivism rate for released prisoners is high.

Responding to the stark realities of the Haitian prison system, MCC in Haiti has recently shifted from a strategy of public policy advocacy and provision of humanitarian assistance (such as blankets, food and hygiene kits) to a strategy of restorative justice, legal aid and wraparound support to aid with reintegration after release. After a series of pilot projects to test new approaches, MCC is now supporting two distinct models of work with prisoners.

Pro bono legal aid and community connections for imprisoned parents

MCC’s largest restorative justice project is led by Alliance Chrétienne pour la Justice (ACJ), a Haitian organization which coordinates volunteer lawyers who provide free legal aid to prisoners in pretrial detention who are accused of minor nonviolent crimes in pretrial. The project focuses on incarcerated parents, particularly single parents, with minor children. MCC supports training for the volunteer lawyers and required court fees. The lawyers donate 100% of their time. To help with reintegration, the project links willing incarcerated participants with their home congregations (or a new church in their home community) as well as a volunteer community and spiritual mentor from their faith perspective. Due to a primarily volunteer model, the project is highly cost effective at US$191 per planned released participant. Additionally, the ACJ projects have so far achieved 123% of the planned releases for the same budget, yielding a realized cost per participant released of US$155. So far, 75% of all released participants have remained in contact with their churches and mentors three months after release, with no known cases of recidivism or reincarceration.

The strengths of this approach include strong local buy-in and voluntarism, cost effectiveness and a holistic approach to spiritual and community reintegration after release. The weaknesses of the approach include reliance on highly qualified professionals to volunteer their time and the lack of additional wraparound supports (such as medical, economic or psychological assistance) that address the common health and financial challenges released prisoners often face. MCC is scaling up its support for this project over the next three years as ACJ grows in capacity. During this time, ACJ aims to facilitate the release and reintegration of 175 parents.

Holistic wraparound support for children in prison

MCC’s other restorative justice project, in its second pilot phase, partners with the Haitian organization Zanmi Timoun to provide a more comprehensive wraparound model for supporting children in prison. Given the extreme vulnerability of children both while in prison and post-release, a more holistic and structured model of support is required. The project utilizes paid staff to provide psychological counseling, basic medical aid, preparation for post-release reintegration and education. The project also addresses the stigma families feel from having a child in prison, offers mediation between families and their children upon their release and economic assistance for the most vulnerable children to attend school or start a small business. Due to its resource-intensive approach, the cost per released participant is US$302. The project’s transportation and logistical costs are also high because the imprisoned children which Zanmi Timoun assists are spread out across all 17 Haitian prisons (only one of which is designated as a juvenile detention center). With MCC’s support, Zanmi Timoun works with approximately 200 children per year in the prisons (about one-third of all incarcerated children in Haiti) and follows 100 of them through to release. Cases receiving full legal accompaniment are prioritized based on the inability of their families to pay for legal aid and the severity of their accused crimes (with priority going to those accused of minor nonviolent crimes). To date, the two pilot projects with Zanmi Timoun have resulted in the release of 47 children, among whom there have been zero known cases of recidivism or reincarceration.

The strengths of Zanmi Timoun’s approach include the comprehensive nature of the wraparound services provided, the way in which family reintegration is emphasized and supported and the involvement of paid staff to provide greater consistency and control over quality and timeliness of services. The approach’s greatest weakness is its resource-intensive nature and dependence on paid staff throughout the process.

Next steps

MCC’s work in Haitian prisons through these two models has been successful because each model is adapted to the population it serves. Additionally, both approaches include advocacy to the Haitian government about prolonged pre-trial detention, which results in people waiting in jail for years for a trial. The more pared down volunteer model of ACJ allows for the maximum number of adults to be helped with a limited budget and capacity. The more comprehensive model of Zanmi Timoun allows for the higher level of support incarcerated children and their families require given their heightened vulnerability. ACJ is currently out of the pilot phase and at the start of a three-year initiative to scale up its work. Zanmi Timoun is in the middle of its second-year pilot project as it continues to refine its approach. Over the coming years, MCC Haiti staff will collaborate closely with both organizations to learn more about how both models can be improved.

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator, living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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