Haiti's Lost Boys

Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, houses 120 boys ages about 6 to 16, some arrested on vague charges, others netted mistakenly in police sweeps.
Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, houses 120 boys ages about 6 to 16, some arrested on vague charges, others netted mistakenly in police sweeps. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 3, 2007

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- In a small, walled courtyard ringed by coiled razor wire, a scrappy little boy punched and kicked at the humid air.

Mackenzy Sonson strutted one moment, cowered the next. Acted like a big man, then slipped into baby talk.

"I'm not tough," he said on a recent afternoon. Then he smacked a kid twice his size.

Mackenzy, better known as "Little Baron," lives in Cell C-4, back wall, bottom bunk, at Fort Dimanche, Port-au-Prince's children's prison. Cellmates dubbed him Baron because his dark black skin reminds them of Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit who is believed to guard passage to the underworld. The "little" is obvious -- he says he's 8 years old.

This place where Little Baron is growing up, where he discovered Donald Duck cartoons and is learning to read, is a gallery of Haiti's woes. The boys warehoused at Fort Dimanche are the products of poverty, child abandonment, rampant homelessness and an educational system that has failed to enroll 1 million school-age children. Their plight reflects a country overwhelmed by the problems of its young -- more than 200,000 Haitian children have lost one or both parents to AIDS and 300,000 work as unpaid domestic servants in a system of bonded servitude, according to the U.N. Children's Fund.

Hardly any of the 120 boys at Fort Dimanche know when -- or if -- they will be released. Some were undoubtedly recruited to be child soldiers in gangs that lured them with food and shelter in return for help in kidnappings and robberies. Others are imprisoned here for years for minor crimes or are innocents nabbed in neighborhood sweeps by a notoriously corrupt police force, children's advocates say.

"This is where you see the total failure of the justice system," said Maryse Penette-Kedar, head of PRODEV, a foundation that is trying to improve conditions in the children's jail. "It's incompetence. It's total lack of management. People can't be in jail forever."

Haiti's dysfunctional criminal justice system offers no formal process for freeing child inmates, Penette-Kedar said. Those who have been formally charged are often accused of crimes as vague as "associating with bad people."

Some of the inmates of this hillside prison were as young as 6 when they arrived, although determining their true ages is an inexact science. The street kids who show up at the prison in Haiti generally come without birth certificates or parents; some don't even know their birthdays.

Penette-Kedar's organization -- backed in part by money from pop star Wyclef Jean's charitable foundation, Yele Haiti -- has begun a unique transformation of Fort Dimanche, hoping to make it Haiti's first child rehabilitation center. Young inmates who were once kept in lockdown 23 hours a day now get regular exercise and attend classes inside the prison.

Fort Dimanche, which means "Sunday Fort," sits on a craggy hillside in Delmas 33, a neighborhood of tightly packed cinder-block homes. The one-story children's wing, housing inmates up to age 17, is just steps away from a larger building where adult offenders are kept. There is always a line of visitors for the adult prison, but few come to see the children, most of whom are abandoned or orphaned.

The prison, for all its deprivations, can be a refuge from a hostile environment. Children have asked not to be released, Penette-Kedar said. A few parents have begged officials to imprison their children, even when they have not been accused of a crime, because they believe Fort Dimanche is safer than the streets. Several children were murdered by gang members shortly after being released because of suspicions that they gained their freedom by becoming informants.

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