Prison experts from the UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit (SU), which reports to the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Ministry of Defence, are coming to the end of their time in Haiti. Their deployment is part of the overall UK Government emergency response to the earthquake. The following article is a reflection on what has been achieved over the last six months.
“Six months ago the world looked on aghast as Haiti was rocked by a devastating earthquake. This Caribbean island, known for its independent and defiant spirit, was faced with the challenge of how to rebuild its future.
Following the disaster a number of Haiti’s prisons were left empty as almost 5,000 prisoners escaped or were released from falling buildings. Gangs of criminals returned to the streets of a devastated Port-au-Prince. For the SU’s Team Leader, Paul Biddle, this was ‘the largest prison escape in living memory.’ Lawlessness was an immediate threat to the vast international aid effort on the island.
Bags were packed and an SU rapid response team was deployed within 12 hours of the call for assistance. Following this a second team of SU experts was dispatched at the request of the Haitian Government to assist the Ministry of Justice and later the Directorate of Prisons (DAP) in rebuilding two prisons. Since their arrival in early February, the team has been working on Arcahaie, an adult prison in the suburbs of Port au Prince, and Delmas 33, Haiti’s only juvenile detention facility. The SU team were the only prison experts in Haiti.
As a member of the Civilian Stabilisation Group and a prisons expert with over 25 years of experience in conflict environments including Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, Biddle realised that this was a unique experience: “I’ve been involved for over 25 years with prisons either building them, training the staff or mentoring senior prison management in both conflict and post-conflict situations but I’ve never worked in the aftermath of a major natural disaster. Re-constructing prisons in these circumstances is somewhat uncharted territory for the UK Government.”
The SU team has co-ordinated repairs to the structural damage caused by the earthquake and the escape damage where walls were smashed and gates torn away. They have also improved the sanitation facilities and utilities. At the same time, they have used their expertise to assist the Haitian government and Prison Service with advice on prisoner rights, and strategic planning. This was the first time an international team had been seconded to DAP, something Biddle describes as an ‘honour and privilege.’ The SU team has also been working closely with the Department for International Development team on the ground, the UN mission in Haiti(MINUSTAH) and the Canadians through START (Stabilisation and Reconstruction Task Force).
Standard Operating Procedures have already been established for both Arcahaie and Delmas 33 and the hope is that these will be applied to other prisons by the Haitian authorities. The team has also provided workshops for Haitian prison staff on a number of topics including security management and contingency planning.
Biddle has been impressed by the Haitians’ resilience and is optimistic about the future. “We’re due to finish in just over a month. I can’t reflect fully on my experience yet as there is still so much to do, but it only seems like yesterday when we arrived. The Haitians have shown resilience and fortitude after the earthquake. They have now taken the first brave steps to building a new prison service that will hopefully lead the way for the rest of the justice system.”
This article was first published on the Stabilisation Unit website.