"Straight up: This is hell. Getting locked up in Haiti will drive you crazy if it doesn't kill you first," homicide suspect Vangeliste Bazile tells the AP from Haiti's National Penitentiary. The crumbling facility houses around 5,000 prisoners, 80% of which are in extended pretrial detention. Overcrowding, malnutrition, and infectious diseases that flourish in jammed quarters have led to an upsurge of inmate deaths in Haiti, including 21 at the Port-au-Prince penitentiary just last month. Those who monitor the country's lockups are sounding an alarm about collapsing conditions. "This is the worst rate of preventable deaths that I have encountered anywhere in the world," says Dr. John May, co-founder of the Health Through Walls nonprofit.
Some inmates are provided meals by visiting relatives, but the large majority of prisoners are dependent on authorities to feed them twice a day and get little more than rationed supplies of rice, oats, or cornmeal. Even clean drinking water is often in short supply. Prison authorities say they try their best to meet inmates' needs, but receive insufficient funds from the state to buy food and cooking fuel. Haiti's penal system is by far the globe's most congested, with a staggering 454% occupancy level, according to the University of London's Institute for Criminal Policy Research. The nonprofit Institute for Justice and Democracy blames the overcrowding on rampant corruption, with judges, prosecutors, and lawyers creating a market for bribes. (Read more Haiti stories.)