Police: More than 400 escape in deadly Haiti prison break; notorious gang leader killed

More than 400 inmates remained at large after escaping from a Haiti prison Thursday in a massive jailbreak that also left 25 dead, the government said, the latest incident to highlight the squalid conditions and lack of security in the country's penitentiaries.

The mind-boggling figure was revealed Friday after police confirmed that a notorious gang leader who had fled the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison had been killed.

Haiti National Police spokesman Gary Desrosiers said Arnel Joseph was shot by police while traveling on a motorcycle in the town of L'Estere. The rural village is located 75 miles just north of Port-au-Prince in the rice-growing Artibonite Valley. One of two men accompanying Joseph was also shot and police are searching for him.

Desrosiers said two police officers came across Joseph while he was traveling through the town's busy street market and thought he looked suspicious. When they ordered him to stop, he leaned in to fire his weapon and an officer shot him during the exchange. He was found with a 9 mm pistol, Desrosiers said.

Officers regained control of the overcrowded facility late Thursday after capturing dozens of prisoners. Civil society leaders and diplomats expressed dismay at what they described as another example of the country's inability to get a hold of widespread crime and address its dysfunctional justice system.

"This prison break further highlights the problem of prolonged preventive detention and prison overcrowding, which remains a matter of concern that must be urgently addressed by Haitian authorities," U.N. Representative Helen La Lime said.

Joseph had been awaiting trial on accusations of rape, kidnapping, homicide and illegal weapons possession. He was known for having terrorized residents in Village de Dieu, a Port-au-Prince slum and kidnapping lair. He was arrested in 2019 after a months-long manhunt. Joseph previously escaped in 2010 and 2017 from the National Penitentiary while serving time for the murders of several policemen, said Pierre Esperance, a leading human rights advocate whose organization tracks prisoners and conditions in Haiti's jails.

Among those killed in the unrest was the director of the prison, Paul Joseph Hector. He was shot in the head, reportedly by inmates, Desrosiers said.

Haiti's Citizen's Protection Office said in a statement the "spectacular escape" occurred midday following tensions inside the prison, the exact nature of which were not specified. Ombudsman Renan Hedouville said both detainees and Prison Administration officials were killed. Journalists at the scene saw at least seven bodies outside the facility.

Frantz Exantus, a government spokesman, said there were 1,542 prisoners inside the facility before the prison break. Officials counted 1,125 inmates inside Friday afternoon. The prison was built for 870 prisoners, according to the National Human Rights Defense Network, a local human rights group that routinely visits the prison to meet with inmates. Exantus also said several arms were recovered.

The incident comes as Haiti experiences a deepening political crisis and fears that President Jovenel Moise is turning into the region's newest strongman. He has been ruling by decree for the last year and defied opposition demands to step down. Detractors have named their own interim president.

In an interview with Haiti's daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, late Thursday, Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe said initial reports indicated the upheaval began inside the prison. At one point inmates kidnapped the prison director. He said they escaped using a ladder next to the watchtower and downplayed the severity of what occurred.

"It is not as catastrophic as it is being presented," he said.

La Lime said she is deeply concerned by the recent events.

"While the prompt response of the Haitian National Police likely prevented the escape of more inmates, I encourage the police to speed up investigations on the circumstances surrounding this incident, redouble its efforts to re-apprehend the escapees, and strengthen security around prisons throughout the country," she said.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, also expressed worry over the situation.

"We are concerned that over 300 detainees remain at large," he said, adding that they remain attentive to the ongoing investigation. "The secretary-general condemns these acts of violence and calls for swift justice and accountability for all those responsible."

Inhumane conditions inside Haiti's teeming prisons and provincial jails mean 20, 40, and even 80 prisoners are often crammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside poorly ventilated, filthy cells that defy acceptable international norms of 14.8 feet of prison area per person. With the areas of some cells sometimes no more than about six feet by six feet on average, Haiti's prison system is considered to be one of the world's most crowded.

Built by Canada in 2014, the Croix-des-Bouquets Civil Prison is considered to be a more modern facility compared to the central prison, and has tight security. Its inmate population includes a number of high-profile prisoners charged with serious crimes and others awaiting trial.

During a 2016 visit by Gustavo Gallon, the then-U.N. independent expert on human rights in Haiti, Gallon said he was not satisfied with conditions he found at the prison. While overcrowding was not as bad as other prisons, he said it was still above capacity. He also said that of 1,105 inmates, only 330 had been convicted. One prisoner he met had been in pretrial detention for more than three years after being accused of buying an allegedly stolen gun.

"If he was tried and convicted, this crime is punishable by a year and a half. He was never heard by a judge," Gallon said at the time.

Prison breaks are not uncommon in Haiti, where prisons are notoriously overcrowded, rife with problems and prisoners spend years in pretrial detention without being charged with a crime.

In 2005, there were several jail breaks from Haiti's largest penitentiary, the National Penitentiary, which is located just blocks from Haiti's National Palace. In one incident, nearly 500 prisoners escaped from the prison, allegedly aided by corrupt guards who unlocked the doors and allowed inmates to flee.

During Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, more than 4,000 prisoners broke out of the National Penitentiary when the walls cracked and the prison guards fled. About 1,000 more fled from regional jails.

In August 2014, about 330 prisoners escaped from a prison in Croix-des-Bouquets using weapons apparently smuggled in by guards. The freed prisoners included some charged and convicted of serious crimes. Also in 2014, nearly three dozen prisoners awaiting trial in the northern city of St. Marc escaped by sawing through steel bars and crawling through a window at the jail. At the time there were 500 prisoners inside the jail.

In 2019, officials at a jail in the southern city of Aquin reported the escape of 78 inmates when police became distracted by demonstrations outside the prison and adjoining police station. 

Source: https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/nation/police-more-than-400-escape-in-deadly-haiti-prison-break-notorious-gang-leader-killed/article_d88a6ca3-f198-5e39-9f39-b1e0f9352e89.html

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