The alleged head of a kidnapping ring remained on the run Monday along with hundreds of other inmates after the biggest jailbreak in Haiti since a devastating earthquake shattered the National Penitentiary, sending more than 4,500 prisoners into the streets nearly five years ago.
But this time, it wasn’t a natural disaster that upended the walls of what is supposed to be one of the best-built prisons in Haiti. It was a well-planned attack from within the prison on the outskirts of the capital, apparently aimed at freeing Clifford Brandt, the son of a well-heeled businessman who confessed to his role in the October 2012 abduction of the adult son and daughter of a business rival.
Haiti’s government offered a $22,372 or 1 million gourde reward for information leading to Brandt’s capture, and launched a countrywide manhunt for him and 328 other inmates — accused rapists, robbers and kidnappers among them — who also got away Sunday morning.
“Regardless of where the person is, once they are in the territory, we will get them,” Pierre Estanislas Cantave Neptune, secretary of state for public security, said during a Monday news conference.
Neptune noted that authorities have set up police checkpoints, reenforced the porous border with the Dominican Republic and put Jamaican and Dominican officials and Interpol on alert.
“If we don’t get them today,” he said, “we will get them tomorrow anyhow.”
Haiti National Police Chief Godson Orélus called the incident regrettable but not uncommon. He said an administrative investigation was underway to determine if anyone inside the prison was involved.
“I would have never wished for something like this to happen,” said Orélus, noting that police had captured about 10 inmates by Monday. “What happened yesterday is something that is unacceptable, knowing all of the sacrifice the police have made to combat kidnapping and imprisoned a series of kidnappers so the population can live in peace.”
For Orélus and his beleaguered police force, Brandt’s high-profile arrest in 2012 had come to symbolize a turning point in police work in Haiti. Investigators used cell phone records between Brandt and other accomplices, including former police officers and an employee of the victims’ father, to track down the children of his business rival.
Now, Brandt’s escape has become an embarrassing episode, observers and human rights observers say, that highlights the entrenched weaknesses of Haiti’s security and justice sectors, and the country’s ongoing challenges with prolonged pretrial detention in its overcrowded prison systems.
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Twenty-two months after his arrest, Brandt was still in pretrial detention.
“When you are talking about justice and rule of law, it is much more than about bricks and mortar or beautiful new prisons and lovely courthouses,” said Bill O’Neill, a human rights lawyer who has been involved with Haiti since 1986 and is director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum. “It’s really about the people who run them and the culture of the organization that matters most.
“In Haiti’s case, the justice system, prison system is still largely run the old fashion way — nepotism, corruption, inefficiency and lack of accountability,” he said. “There is no serious oversight, so people can literally get away with all kinds of things. The oversight of prison guards, of the justice system, is still lax and there is no internal discipline to make people do their job.”
O’Neill said Brandt’s escape shows what happens when the justice system completely breaks down by not trying people, and raises questions about whether he had help from inside.
On Saturday, a Clifford Brandt parody account was reactivated on Twitter, with cryptic warnings in Creole about a prison escape.
O’Neill said Haitian authorities should launch an independent investigation into the raid. Orélus, the police chief, said he had launched an investigation to determine how the break occurred.
“The sanctions are going to be really, really tough because it’s the country’s security that is at stake,” he said.
Just last month, during a Haitian government town hall in South Florida, Orélus and others lauded the effort Haiti had made to improve security and stem kidnapping.
Police spokesman Gary Desrosiers told reporters Sunday that at least two guards were shot during the escape.
Desrosiers also said that the prison, which was planned to house 768 inmates, had 899.
The issue of prison overcrowding and prolonged pretrial detention have been ongoing issues in Haiti and the focus of repeated calls by United Nations independent experts over the years.
In February, the newly appointed independent expert on the human rights situation in Haiti, Gustavo Gallon, said prolonged pretrial detention required “shock treatment in order to substantially reduce the number of persons held in pretrial detention and to prevent its recurrence.” Haitian authorities, he said, told him that 80 percent of the country’s 10,000 inmates were being held in pretrial detention.
"Some of these people have spent more time in pretrial detention than serving the sentence that might be handed down if they were convicted," Gallon said.
Gallon’s predecessor Michel Forst had made similar observations in 2013, after visiting the new Croix-des-Bouquets prison.
The construction of the $6 million prison in Croix-des-Bouquets was part of Canada’s efforts to help reform Haiti's overcrowded and inhumane prison system.
When it opened in 2012, the Canadian government said on its website that the prison “will be the most modern facility in Haiti’s prison system [and] will be a model facility in terms of safety and security, hygiene and health conditions, and respect for prisoners’ rights.”
Forst echoed those sentiments, saying the prison offered “a glimmer of hope and an insight into what a prison system established on the basis of respect for the relevant international standards could look like in Haiti.” But he also offered caution in his report.
While the prison’s construction was “well-built and well-designed,” he said, “the resources available in terms of staffing, security installations and budgetary allocations are insufficient at present to allow the prison to run according to the standards that were set
“Without a special effort to ensure that it is run properly, all the hopes placed in it risk being disappointed, due to inadequate funding,” he said.