COVID-19 catastrophe waiting to happen

Imagine the struggle of containing the new coronavirus if it hits Haiti’s hellish prison system — the world’s most overcrowded — where filthy, sometimes windowless cells meant to house 20 people are teeming with up to 80, unable to even go outside for fresh air.

The poorest country in the Americas has reported only one coronavirus death out of 27 recorded cases so far. But activists and officials fear the prison network is an epidemiological ticking time bomb.

The system is a mess, from a new women’s prison built in 2016 to crumbling provincial jails that, over time, have become places for long-term detention rather than short stays. All of them are overcrowded.

Haiti has 11,300 people behind bars — most of them waiting to go on trial, sometimes for years — in conditions that human rights activists liken to torture.

“Prison cells in Haiti are small rooms with space for 10 to 20 people if you use the rule of 4.5 square metres per prisoner,” said Marie Rosy Auguste Ducena of the National Human Rights Network. That works out to about seven feet by seven feet per man or woman.

“But these cells hold up to 80 people. So you can just imagine the levels of overcrowding these people are forced to endure,” she added.

“The cells are also very poorly lit and have little ventilation, so the prisoners become very weak,” said Auguste.

Because there is not money to hire enough guards, prisoners are not allowed outside to get fresh air or exercise, said Auguste.

Human rights groups have complained for decades about the appalling conditions in Haiti’s prisons.

But now, as the novel coronavirus sweeps the globe and even countries as rich as the United States struggle to keep prisoners safe — sometimes simply releasing them — Haiti is in a race against time.

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