• Malnourished men in Haiti's National Penitentiary, one of the most overcrowded prisons in the world. (SBS Dateline)
Go inside one of the world’s most infamous prisons, where 80 per cent of inmates are locked up without a conviction, in conditions described as ‘sub-human’.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 21:30

The smell of sweat, faeces, urine. Emaciated men packed like sardines in narrow corridors and behind bars, so close together they can’t sit. A constant barrage of shouting.

These are the first things you notice upon entering Haiti’s National Penitentiary.

Located in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, it is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the world – holding more than 4,000 inmates in a space build for 1,200.

In one block, Dateline reporter Seyi Rhodes found 60 prisoners, but only 18 beds. The men who don’t have a bed sleep in hammocks, or on the floor.

This prison is home to murderers, rapists and kidnappers. It’s also home to many innocent men, who’ve been locked up without prosecution and have a slim chance of securing release. Some say they’ve been here for 10 years, without ever having their day in court.

One man, Jean, says he was arrested and imprisoned but never informed why. He escaped in a prison break in 2010, but was re-arrested and is back in jail. He is still unaware of what crime he is accused of committing.

“I’m suffering. To eat, to buy soap,” he said. “It’s thanks for a few people, people in here reaching out to me.”

“I can’t cope anymore, I have no one. Only God can put in a word for me.”

One cell in the prison is used to quarantine 49 prisoners with tuberculosis. They describe the harrowing living conditions.

“We’re sleeping on top of each other,” calls out one man.

“There’s no toilet.”

“There are so many of us.”

The prison is 400% over capacity and, the majority of prisoners are not proven criminals. The Governor of the prison reveals staggering figures about the legal status of inmates.

“There are around 529 who are sentenced and 3,830 detainees who are in prolonged pre-trial detention,” he said. “It’s a lot.”

Florence Elie, the head of Haiti's Citizen Protection Ministry, is tasked with documenting human rights abuses in the country. She regularly visits the prison to check the welfare of the men, many of whom she believes should not be incarcerated

As soon as she enters, men rush towards her trying to tell their story of injustice. “Every time,” she says. “It’s always the same thing.” Their desperation is overwhelming.

Much of Haiti’s judicial stagnation, which is resulting in a majority of prisoners not being granted a trial, is the result of a devastating event in Haiti’s recent past that it’s never fully recovered from.

In 2010, the country was devastated by a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake killing hundreds of thousands of people – the exact number of casualties remains unknown.

The death toll and damage caused by the earthquake were made worse due to the Haiti’s poor housing quality and dire poverty. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and most people live on US$2 a day – planning for a natural disaster is not a priority for much of the country’s population.

60 per cent of government buildings were destroyed in the earthquake, including the old courthouse. The justice system is still struggling to recover its basic functions, let alone meet the needs of the country’s high crime rate.

To make matters worse, judges in Haiti mostly work part time and are regularly on leave. Criminal files are hand-written, poorly archived and difficult to find, meaning many prisoners are unable to give defence lawyers with their case files, if they’re even able to gain access to a lawyer.

One of the few lifelines for prisoners in Haiti is human rights lawyer Jacques Letang. In 2016 he secured the release of more than 40 people who’d never been convicted of a crime.

While filming our story, Letang successfully freed two prisoners accused of a murder they didn’t commit, with a local judge signing their release forms.

However, one month later, they were still in prison, because of a dispute over their paperwork.

This outcome is not unusual, and the longer these men remain imprisoned, the lower their chances of ever surviving their jail sentence.

Many of the inmates are sick and malnourished – on average three men die each month, from diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.

Many of the dead are innocent men, who should not have been imprisoned in the first place. But will Haiti do anything fix this mess?

Watch the full story at the top of the page.


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Reporter: Seyi Rhodes

Director / Camera: Kate Godfrey

Location Producer: Jeremy Dupin

Editor: Jane Hodge


I'm inside Haiti's biggest penitentiary, with unprecedented access to one of the most overcrowded prisons in the world. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere – it’s a country where very little works. The effects of the earthquake in 2010 are still visible. It devastated the nation, killing more than a quarter-of-a-million people and destroying most of Haiti's infrastructure.

Most people here survive on just $2 a day and the capital of Port-au-Prince is plagued by crime. I've come to meet one of the most influential women in Haiti. Florence Elie is the protector of citizens and it is her job to make sure that the government here looks after its sit citizens human rights.

I've arranged to meet her at the National Penitentiary where nearly half of the country's prisoners are locked up. It is home to more than 4,000 inmates. Among them are some of Haiti’s most violent convicted murderers, rapists and kidnappers.

FLORENCE ELIE, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER (Translation):  Are you coming with me?  Thanks a lot.

It’s Florence's job to document human rights abuses all over the country. But she spends much of her time here because she suspects many of these men shouldn't even be in prison.

PRISONERS (Translation):  Listen! Let me speak to you.

The prisoners have named this block The Titanic. This place is notorious and Florence is surrounded by people and they're all desperate to try and tell her their story and get some assistance to get out.

REPORTER:  Does this happen every time you come in?

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  Every time. It’s the same every time I come.

The first thing that hits you is the smell - sweat, faeces, urine - that and the barrage of noise. I've only been in here for about five minutes and I'm starting to freak out. It's totally crammed full of human bodies and everyone is desperate, they're trying to get water, they're trying to get food. They're trying to stay alive.

They're locked up in these cells for 23 hours a day. As we arrive, it's breakfast and the inmates are collecting their rations. We count 60 prisoners coming out. But inside, I count only 18 beds. The extra men sleep in makeshift hammocks or fight for space on the floor.  At 72 years of age, Florence is known as Mami Flo. For many of these men, she's their only hope.

PRISONER (Translation):  Give this to my little boy.

And I keep being handed pieces of paper.

PRISONER:  I’ve never been judged, I got here six years ago.


PRISONER: I got here six years ago.

Like me, Florence is bombarded. Some of the prisoners tell me they've been here for 10 years without ever facing a trial.

We're getting this really overwhelming sense of responsibility.  I've got all these little pieces of paper in my hand, some of them just scribbled on the back of cigarette packets. For some people this is their only lifeline, it is their only way to explain what's happened to them. The prison guards agree to let me speak with one of the inmates privately.

JEAN, INMATE (Translation):  I’m an artist and a painter. I was documented, since then I’ve not been called for trial

He says the police grabbed him as he was walking through a market but he has no idea what the charge is. The 2010 earthquake sparked a mass prison break. Jean escaped, along with the other prisoners, but was later re-arrested.

JEAN (Translation):  I’m suffering. Just to get food to eat, to buy soap. It’s thanks for a few people, people in here reaching out to me. I can’t cope any more, I have no one, only God can put in a word for me.

The law states anyone arrested should be brought before a judge within 48 hours. But in reality, that hardly ever happens. Florence takes me to see the prison governor.

GOVERNOR (Translation):  We have room for 1200 inmates but at the moment we have to accommodate 4359.


That's nearly 400% overcapacity.

GOVERNOR (Translation):  About 529 have been sentenced and 3830 are in prolonged pre-trial detention.

REPORTER:  It’s a lot. Why?

GOVERNOR (Translation):  Yes, it is.

It's no wonder there's so much desperation among the inmates. 80% of them have never even been convicted.

GOVERNOR (Translation): You need to ask the judicial authorities about the number of inmates in prolonged pre-trial detention.  It’s not for me judge the judicial authorities.

I want to track down a judge, so I'm heading across town to the courthouse, the Palais de Justice. There are more than 3,000 people in the main prison who haven't been tried. From what I've managed to find out, the real log jam is happening at the Palais de Justice. 60% of the government buildings were destroyed in the earthquake including the old courthouse. Even though it's now moved to a new building the justice system is still struggling to recover. Florence knows people in this building. If anyone can find a judge, it's her.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  Locked… He doesn’t seem to be here. He isn’t here either, we can go to one of the courtrooms to see if there are trials in progress. Let’s go and have a look.  Hello!

I'm starting to get a sense of why it's so hard for people to get a trial in Haiti. I've been in here for 10 minutes with Florence. She's knocked on two or three doors, she's had to walk into a courtroom, and she still can't find a judge.

REPORTER:  Can we find some judges to speak to?

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  The judicial year resumes in October.

REPORTER:  Is this why there are 3,000 people in prison waiting?

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  There are some cases.

I'm told the judges have a 2-month holiday every year. And even when they're working, they only do part-time hours.

REPORTER:  I think we've found a judge.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  He’s not here, he’s away.  Thanks a lot.

We've found his assistant. This is impossible.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  He’s not here. He's not in Haiti.

But it's not just the lack of judges that's causing the backlog of cases.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  These are the files, the problem is not only the judge, it is the support system behind his work.

REPORTER:  There are guys in prison who tell me, "I don't know where my file is. Nothing's happening."

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  I’m here to show you what a mess it is.

They're not even in alphabetical order, Florence. Sorry, it's really making me quite angry. Seeing this is one of the most frustrating things that I've experienced since I got here. I'm going through my book and I'm seeing all the names of prisoners who keep coming up to me, begging them to help them, Solomon, Francis, Wesley and Johnny, all of their files are in there somewhere but nobody could ever find them. It's complete chaos.

The Haitian justice system relies entirely on handwritten documents. On top of that, 40% of Haitians can't even read and write. So if they can't afford a lawyer, they have little hope. The next morning I meet Jacques Letang. He is one of the most successful human rights lawyers in the country. He represents some of those who are lost in the system.

JACQUES LETANG, HUMAN RIGHTS LAWYER (Translation):  During the last sitting, we got people out
Who had been in jail five, seven, eight, nine, even ten years.

Jacques 'been battling Haiti's justice system for 10 years. This year he's won the release of more than 40 people who'd never even been convicted.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  Tell me about the circumstances of your arrest.

Jacques' representing two inmates who are accused of being accessories to murder, but he's found evidence that their alleged victim actually died of cholera. He wants to prove there is simply no case to answer.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  How long have you been detained?

INMATE (Translation):  Five years. Five years and two months.

That's five years they've served for a murder that couldn't possibly have been committed. Now that Jacques and his team have met these two men and confirmed that they here and confirmed that the story they've received is true, they need to go up to the administration building and see if they can get hold of a document to prove that these two men are in prison. Once they have that, they can then go back to the courts and try to get them release. So the first step is to actually prove they're in prison.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  The file officer is not there, the door is closed.

Jacques and his team head off to speak with the prison governor to find out why none of the archive staff are around.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  We have been asking for this certificate for a week.

GOVERNOR (Translation):  The person in charge is at training.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  Do you know why they want this certificate from you? It is because…

GOVERNOR (Translation):  It is not my responsibility!

The prison governor insists there's nothing he can do. So, Jacques is forced to leave the prison to find a legal official who can certify that Herve and Lexinor exist as prisoners. Luckily, the court that Jacques needs to go is just around the corner from the prison, so we can walk there.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  Okay, we have a judge.

We bring the judge back to the penitentiary. The two prisoners have just been brought out for a second time today, so that they can appear before this local magistrate to confirm their identity. And with this document, hopefully, they can prove that these men are actually here and then start the process of actually getting them out. It's taken four hours to get one piece of paper just to prove that the two men are in prison. Finally, Jacques has what he needs to take their case to court.

I'm told that, on average, three inmates die here every month. I head to the infirmary to see the conditions. The beds are full. There are even people sleeping under the beds.

REPORTER (Translation):  Is everyone here sick?

GIDEON, INMATE (Translation):  Yes, everyone is sick.

Inmates are given two meals a day, but prison gruel is mostly made of flour and water. Those who don't have family to bring them regular meals can quickly become weak and malnourished. This place is like 'hell on earth' - there are scores of men this there, emaciated, visibly sick, and they've all been crammed into the same room. I'm told that some of their families don't know they're here, some of them have been there for years. This is what most of the deaths in this prison happen. I'm told that in one weekend, four people were taken out of here and rushed to emergency, three of them died within days.

Haiti's struggling with a cholera outbreak that was brought into the country after the earthquake. Local doctors in a foreign charity do provide medical care but diseases like cholera travel fast here. All the men in the cells all round here are locked in for the majority of the day. They can't even leave to go to the toilet. So they do it in a bag and when they get tired of having the bag of poo in their cell they just chuck it out the window. So the longer I stand here, the more uncomfortable I'm feeling. Cramped living conditions also help the spread of tuberculosis, which kills scores of prisoners every year.

We are heading into this block of the infirmary which is where they keep everybody who has got tuberculosis. I'm told there are over 150 people in here.

REPORTER (Translation):  How many of you in here?  How many?

INMATE (Translation):  49.

REPORTER (Translation):  49 in here?  Do you take medication?

INMATE (Translation):  No. We are in jail.  It’s stressful, we can’t get a trial. We think of our family outside, it makes us sick.

In many ways this place is even more desperate than any of the other cells. These guys have to be locked in here because they're contagious, so I'm told there are 49 people locked in this cell.

INMATE (Translation): We sleep on top of each other, there’s no toilet! There are so many of us!

You can see just how angry they are. They can't leave and they can't be allowed to leave. They're frightened they might day before they see a judge. Even among the minority of prisoners who have been to court, there are shocking allegations of injustice.

REPORTER:  How long have you been in prison for?

PAUL JEAN PANEL, INMATE (Translation):  Four years.

Paul Panel was thrown into prison in 2012. He went on trial three years later.

PAUL JEAN PANEL (Translation):  I went to court, I saw the judge on 16th August 2015, I should have been released on 22nd September but I am still here.

Paul claims he's waiting for his release form to be handed over - something the court clerk should have done after his trial last year.

PAUL JEAN PANEL (Translation):  Each time the court clerk comes here… he tells me that if I had 1000 Haitian dollars, he could speak on my behalf.

We don't know if this is true, but the UN lists corruption as a major problem within Haiti's justice system. He remembers everything to do with his case. He knows his case number, his prison number, he knows the names of the lawyers, the judges - all the people who've tried to get bribes for him - and I feel like with a little bit of investigation, I might be able to actually find out what's going on here.  Florence offers to help me track down Paul's paperwork.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  Here he is, Paul Jean Panel.

CLERK (Translation):  Yes, he has already been tried.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  He was tried in August 2015.

REPORTER (Translation):  And what happened?

CLERK (Translation):  He was accused of criminal conspiracy and being an accessory to armed robbery.

REPORTER:  So he was found guilty?

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  We don’t have the order yet.

Paul says he was found not guilty. But there's no record of the verdict.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  After the hearing, the judge goes to his office, he writes the sentence down. A court clerk then brings the sentencing order. I would now need to know who the judge was who delivered the judgement.

REPORTER:  This is like a bad dream.

CLERK (Translation):  We have been waiting for the release order.

Paul's adamant the judge acquitted him a year ago, but the release form is nowhere to be seen.

CLERK (Translation):  We need documents to be able to release someone.

FLORENCE ELIE (Translation):  Once the file is lost, the poor man’s lost too. You see?

Without the paperwork to back up his claims, or money to pay a bribe, he's condemned to a life in prison. Ever since I've first met Paul, I've kind of wanted these details to not be true, because the implications of all this, the corruption, the incompetence, the just downright laziness of it all is almost too much for me to comprehend. Then going in there and seeing the book and then telling me actually, he's telling me the truth and yet he's been left to rot in here.

I want to put my findings to the Minister for Justice, Camille Edouard Junior.

REPORTER:  Now when you've got nearly 70% of the people in prison who haven't even seen a judge yet, why don't you force the judges here to work more often, and maybe even trained more and employed more to get the job done?

CAMILLE EDOUARD JUNIOR, MINISTER OF JUSTICE (Translation):  They have total autonomy, even I, the Minister of Justice don’t have the authority to discipline judges.

REPORTER:  And when was the last time you actually punished somebody for corruption in the system?

CAMILLE EDOUARD JUNIOR (Translation):  It is difficult in terms of traceability, you need evidence.

REPORTER:  The National Penitentiary is totally overcrowded, it is four times over capacity and that's a breeding ground for tuberculosis. It seems to me that your failure to provide an efficient justice system is literally leading to people dying in prison. You're literally killing prisoners. How do you respond to that?

CAMILLE EDOUARD JUNIOR (Translation):  For a start, this is an inherited problem. It is the result of a systemic failure which has been going on for years.

Jacques has finally made it to the main courthouse to try and free Herve and Lexinor, the men accused of murder a woman who was later found to have died of cholera. The case that Jacques and his team are getting ready for is known as habius corpus. He is essentially trying to argue that his clients have been wrongfully imprisoned. They don't need a hearing, they don't need an investigation. They simply need the judge to agree that there is no case to answer and they need to be freed immediately.

In order to do that, he needs to get a number of legal officials together in the same room, and before a judge. In the next half hour, these five lawyers are going to find out if weeks' worth of work is going to pay off. It's now in the hands of this judge.

JACQUES LETANG (Translation):  The Bureau of Human Rights in Haiti requests that you acknowledge the arbitrary and unlawful nature of the detention of these citizens. This ruling must be passed without delay!

The judge prepares to give his verdict.

JUDGE (Translation):  I acknowledge the unlawful nature of the detention of Lexinor Alseus  and Herve Jean and consequently order their release.

Jacques has managed to win the release of two men who, between them, have spent 10 years in prison for a crime they never committed. It's a small victory.

REPORTER:  Congratulations. Good work. Congratulations.

We head back to the prison, one last time. The city is preparing for one of the biggest storms in a decade. Haiti is bracing itself. It's about to get hit by a Category 4 hurricane. This could be with the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the earthquake in 2010. The prison is on lockdown.

That evening, Hurricane Matthew slams into southern Haiti, killing more than a thousand people and leaving 1.4 million in need of aid. The capital is relatively unscathed, but the south of Haiti is plunged into turmoil. The welfare of the country's prisoners will once again be low on the government's list of priorities.

One month later, Jacques' clients Herve and Lexinor are yet to be released - there's a dispute about their paperwork. Paul's only hope is to have another trial. But since we left him, he's fallen ill and is now in quarantine. Nearly 4,000 prisoners continue to be held without trial in the National Penitentiary.

seyi rhodes

kate godfrey

location producer
jeremy dupin

story editor
jane hodge

micah mcgown
simon phegan
david potts

4th April 2017