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Students seek dignity for female inmates in Haiti

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Imagine your average-size prison cell – not a lot of elbow room. Now imagine you have 37 women held in that one small space. That’s the prison system in Haiti, where prisons are packed to more than 450 percent of capacity, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.

And women have it worse than men. They have no privacy. They sleep in shifts. And personal hygiene is all but nonexistent.

The conditions have sparked condemnation from human rights activists around the world. This year, Mercyhurst University Public Health Club students have vowed to do their small part to make a difference. Last month, they kicked off a program they call Better Hygiene for Haiti, soliciting money, sanitary pads (no tampons), soap, toothpaste, tooth brushes and other basic toiletries. Led by public health instructor Sarah McCool and club president Susan Baltes, the group pledges to continue their efforts throughout the school year.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, they will host a bake sale from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the main lobby of Zurn Hall to benefit Better Hygiene for Haiti. More events are planned but, in the meantime, members of the Mercyhurst community can drop off donations at McCool’s office in the Audrey Hirt Academic Center, Room 312B.

“I didn’t think this would become such a big deal, but the students are really engaged; I’m so proud of them,” McCool said.

She said public health major Tyler Kaye worked with his employer, Sam’s Club, which has agreed to donate $250 toward the cause for every 25 hours students work on the project. Sam’s Club has also indicated it would help with packing and shipping products to Haiti.

The prison conditions in Haiti defy description, said McCool, who has witnessed them first hand. Before coming to Mercyhurst, she worked with a small NGO in Nashville that operated a health clinic in rural southwest Haiti. She traveled there as part of her work and once was invited to visit a women’s prison.

“Each cell had a blackboard on the outside and, on it, was a number,” she said. “That number corresponded to how many women were inside. In the middle was a bucket they shared as a toilet.”

McCool can still remember peering into what appeared to be a 12 X 15-foot cell and seeing indiscriminate women with blank stares crammed one beside the other. Thirty-seven in all. She asked one of the prisoners why she was there and was told, “I don’t know. My husband put me here.”

“Approximately 25 percent of the female inmates are there for no legal cause; most are there for petty crimes, like stealing to feed their children,” McCool said. “Others are waiting three and four years just to get before a judge and hear what they are charged with. Then there are  political prisoners who are held in prolonged detention, and generally this is used as an instrument of political repression. Prisoners have been subject to torture.”

McCool sourced the United Nations Development Programme Gender Inequality Index in noting that Haiti ranks 168 out of 187 countries in inequality between men and women. In other words, she said, there are only 19 other countries in the world where it is worse to be a woman.

“You compound that situation with being in prison and I can’t imagine a worse place in the world for a woman,” she said. “We just want to give them a little dignity.”