Haiti, hunger and U.S. prison imperialism

By James Patrick Jordan

Note: This article, first published by Black Agenda Report, has been edited for the May 25, 2023, print issue of Workers World. Read in full at tinyurl.com/yck3k98y.

Three prisoners in the U.S.-built prison in Petit-Goâve, Haiti, starved to death between Aug. 23 and Sept. 27, 2022. The website Haiti Libre reports: “… one of the deceased prisoners was from Léogâne imprisoned for having stolen an electric wire, and … [another] from the 5th communal section of Petit-Goâve was serving a prison sentence for having stolen a rooster.”

Hungry children in Haiti. (Photo: thestkittsnevisobserver.com)

The vast majority of those imprisoned at Petit-Goâve and throughout the Haitian prison system have not yet been tried or convicted of a crime. In fact, of a prison population of 11,580 persons as of May 2021, only 2,071 had been sentenced. Across Haiti, there were an estimated 80 to 100 prisoners who died of malnutrition and lack of medical care nationwide last year.

The United States has funded the construction of four prisons in Haiti since 2013. However, given its dominant influence over and funding of the Haitian National Police and its prison system, the U.S. bears responsibility for the deplorable conditions that characterize all of Haitian jails today.

Besides Petit-Goâve, the U.S.-built prisons include Port Liberté, for a cost of as much as $8 million; Hinche, at $1.34 million; and Cabaret, which, together with Petit Goâve, cost between $5 million and $10 million. With 83% of the incarcerated awaiting trials that rarely come and people lost in overcrowded cells for years, even the most minor offense can be a de facto death sentence.

It comes as no surprise that Haiti’s jails are connected to U.S. prison imperialism, the spread of the U.S. mass incarceration model across the Global South. The funding for U.S. involvement in foreign prison systems is mainly funneled through the U.S. State Department Bureau of International Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL), [which] has programs that provide direct input and oversight in the police and national prison systems, including embedding INL personnel in some cases.

The INL is the main funding source, even when the U.S. is involved in prisons in places like Saudi Arabia, which the State Department claims has no major role in narco-trafficking.

Though the patterns of abuse we see are all too typical, the levels at which they occur in Haiti are shocking. In Haiti, as in other countries, jail construction is justified on humanitarian concerns and the alleviation of overcrowding. Yet time after time, we see that the construction of more prisons just leads to more overcrowding, worsened conditions and a spike in politically motivated arrests.

Modern prison imperialism began in 2000 with an agreement between the U.S. and Colombian governments to restructure their entire system on a U.S. model. In the aftermath, political imprisonment reached the highest levels in the Americas, and overcrowding surged, rather than being alleviated. Throughout the system, the denial of access to potable water, sufficient and decent quality food and basic health care was endemic.

Nevertheless, misery in jails can be lucrative for some. Somebody has to build those jails — and those somebodies are rarely if ever actual Haitian companies or workers. Among those who profit off U.S. jail construction in Haiti is the firm Hollingsworth Pack, with its headquarters in Williamsburg, Virginia, and offices in Austin and San Antonio, Texas, and Copenhagen, Denmark. The corporation designed three of the four prisons built in Haiti since 2013, as well as three police stations and one police academy.

James Patrick Jordan lives in Tucson, Arizona, and works for the Alliance for Global Justice. Along with Colombia’s Fundación Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity Foundation), he has co-coordinated efforts to inform about and resist Prison Imperialism, the international spread of the U.S. mass incarceration model. AFGJ and FLD are compiling an anthology on the subject, which will be available in early 2024. 

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