Jean Louis* sits at a table and speaks quietly, his voice barely audible over the traffic outside, as he recounts the events that led to his arrest and imprisonment at the age of 14. He had a disagreement with another young man in his Port-au-Prince neighborhood. When the disagreement escalated to a fight, Jean Louis was arrested and put in prison.
Jean Louis remembers the frightening adjustment to the often-violent social hierarchy of children’s prison as a young boy.
“For me, prison was hell. When you are in prison, the kids who have been there the longest are the leaders. They get to do whatever they want. They can beat you. I watched as kids who came the same time as me made the lives of the children who came after us miserable.”
Stressful conditions-- insufficient food, unclean water, and an almost complete lack of medical care—lead to conflict among imprisoned children who have been separated from their families. Many children develop mental and physical illnesses that can affect them for the rest of their lives if left untreated.
MCC photo/Ted Oswald
Once incarcerated, children’s hope of release quickly diminishes, even for those like Jean Louis who have been arrested on minor charges. The maximum sentence for this type of offence is three months. But Jean Louis spent the next four years, the rest of his legal childhood, behind bars.
Often unable to pay for a lawyer, children struggle to have their case reviewed by a judge. Even if family members are working for their case to be seen, the Haitian judicial system is weak and unpredictable, and the fees to pay a lawyer are unmanageable for most ordinary families. When family members are unable to continue pursuing a case or can’t afford to do so, it slips through the cracks in the judicial system. Children continue to sit in prison with little hope of freedom.
Even when they are released, children like Jean Louis face numerous challenges once they return to their communities. They are often cut off by families and communities because of the stigma associated with children in prison. With no place to stay and no financial means to finish their education, opportunities for their future are often bleak.
MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht
For Jean Louis, hope came in the form of MCC partner Zanmi Timoun (Friends of the Children). Zanmi Timoun seeks out cases of children in prison serving far more than their allotted sentence. They work with the prison system to set meetings with the children to assess their needs and begin the process of working toward release and reintegration to their communities.
Zanmi Timoun provides incarcerated children with a lawyer and pays the court fees children’s families are unable to pay. With legal representation, most children finally receive a hearing with a judge and are often released soon afterwards.
Valerie Pierre has served as program coordinator for Intervention and Social Reintegration at Zanmi Timoun since 2015, working directly with participants.
“Zanmi Timoun’s work is important because it speaks for children in prison,” Pierre says, “They don’t have someone who can speak for them, but we are advocating and taking responsibility for these children.”
MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht
In addition to providing legal support, Zanmi Timoun provides mental health support and works to reunite families peacefully. During the initial period of the project, Zanmi Timoun assisted 47 children in prison, including 28 who were released.
The children are seen by a psychologist as part of the program to help process some of the difficult experiences of prison, says Pierre. “Psychologists help them understand their situations better and remain calm. Psychologists also speak with the parents to help them understand the reality of prison and to encourage them to give their children a second chance to change.”
Jean Louis found hope of release through legal representation and emotional support and encouragement through his meetings with a psychologist.
“[The lawyer and psychologist] helped me a lot because, in prison, you are under a lot of stress. But the psychologist helped me to continue to have courage until I was released.”
With the help of Zanmi Timoun, Jean Louis was welcomed back to his mother’s home. He has seen a positive change in himself as a result of psychological care and support he received both in prison and after his return home. Zanmi Timoun has no reported cases of recidivism after children have received the wrap-around support they offer.
Jean Louis will soon finish his high school education and has dreams of studying to become a general electrician. He doesn’t want to see any other children experience prison at the age of 14.
“I think that Zanmi Timoun’s work is important because it gives people hope that they can share with other people once they are released from prison.”
*real name withheld for security