Haiti women inmates allowed a rare family visit day

Rusted window bars of a prison in Haiti.

Rusted window bars of a prison in Haiti.

Amy Nelson/Flickr Creative Commons

Inmates at Haiti's only women's prison recently received a special gift: the chance to see their children for a few hours.

"One year, 10 months and seven days," Berline Solon repeated over and over, stroking the cheek of her daughter, Slovensia.

That's how long it's been since she's seen the girl.

"She's beautiful but she has lost weight," Solon said, her eyes fixed on the 14-year-old. "And she doesn't go to school anymore because I'm not there to pay for it. My sister who looks after her doesn't have the means."

Tears mingled with laughter on Sunday for the women, who are at the mercy of a justice system so slow that inmates can wait for years for court dates.

More than three-quarters of the 306 women at the prison have yet to appear in court, exacerbating overcrowding in the dilapidated facility that should hold a maximum of 100.

"I'm proud to be there for her but if only she could leave with me today, I would be so happy," whispered 15-year-old Sherlo, wiping away his tears.

His mother, Sherley Sanon, has been imprisoned, waiting for a court date, for more than four years. She took the opportunity of the rare meeting to impart some serious life lessons to her son.

"I have many things to tell him, to continue to go to school, and tell him how to deal with life's challenges so that he doesn't become a truant, and to continue to work hard at school," Sanon said.

The 27-year-old mother didn't want to gloss over the tough conditions of her imprisonment, thinking the truth might help keep her son on the right side of the law.

"There are 11 of us in one cell. We need more beds, clean toilets and drinking water," she said.

Sanon also reminded her teenage son to shower twice a day. Embarrassed, the boy looked over his shoulder to see if anyone heard her.

But no one in the room was listening to their conversation, with families trying to make the most of their limited time together on the special Mother's Day visitation arranged by prison officials, with the assistance of the United Nations and several NGOs.

Lack of money kept some families from having a reunion.

Claudette Morisseau said she was seeing her daughter for the first time since 2009, but her two sons weren't able to come.

The three have no father and survive on the generosity of neighbors, and it wasn't possible to scrape together the money for all of them to make the trip across town.

"They cannot let me sit in prison for seven years without telling me that my three children are left to fend for themselves," said Morisseau, who like the others was also waiting to make a court appearance.

The 30-year-old woman could not hold back her tears when her 17-year-old daughter explained that she had to borrow clothes from a neighbor for the visit.

"I'm afraid they will be driven to become thieves," she said.

Outside in the courtyard, Benita Duchene had different worries on her mind as she waited in the rain for her release papers.

After serving 11 years of her 12-year sentence, the woman was looking forward to spending Mother's Day with her children, who are 24, 26 and 28 years old.

They live in Cap-Haitien, Haiti's second-largest city which is about 125 miles from the capital, Port-au-Prince. The cost of the trip — which can take an entire day — was too high for her family.

"I've had a few telephone calls with my children but no one has come to see me since 2010," she said. "I am so happy about seeing them."

"They need to give me a minute of phone credit because I don't know if my son has arrived yet. I hear there are always traffic jams in this city when it rains," she said.