I’d heard prisons in developing countries were heartbreaking, but still wasn’t prepared for what I saw while visiting the Cap-Haitien Prison Ministry in Haiti. This mission partner serves two prisons, and I was able to join their staff as they visited the prisoners at Grand Riviere on Nord.
Father Yves Chrelia, a local priest, met us there and negotiated our entry. What we saw there reminded me of medieval conditions. Dark, damp corridors led down to a bank of concrete jail cells, and each 10’ X 10’ cell had as many as 40 prisoners inside.
As we approached, scores of faces appeared, pressed against the cell bars. Arms and hands reached out through the gaps. A simple plastic bucket was positioned in front of each cell. It would be used to deposit waste. The prisoners would need to collect the bucket, since there is no toilet inside the cell.
I was speechless.
As we walked from cell to cell, speaking to the prisoners, I drew comfort from Fr. Yves spirit and compassion. The longer I watched him minister to the inmates, the more I appreciated our partnership with his ministry.
The prison system in Haiti functions differently from the prison system in the United States. Haitian prisoners can be arrested with minor evidence and kept captive for many months – even several years – before they are formally charged or even see a judge. There is no separation of criminal based on the crimes committed. A man who has stolen a goat to feed his family is put in the same cell as a man who has committed cold-blooded murder.
For some, Father Yves Chrelia provides their only link to civility and grace.
It is amazing to witness the gratitude these suffering people showed for the prison ministry. One woman told us Fr. Ives brings a rare joy into their lives, making it possible to survive their sentence. “Father brings us soap and clothes, but he also provides encouragement and reinforces our faith,” she said. A male prisoner told us, “Father visits, he lifts us up and brings us closer to God.”
The prisoners clearly appreciate the toothpaste and hygiene products Fr. Ives brings, but I could see his pastoral care mattered even more. This glimpse of God’s love gives them hope in a place where hope is very hard to come by.