Improving Prison Conditions

In 2006, Herve Bijou volunteered for a project under the “Haiti rule of Law” program run by Jeremie, Haiti’s law school, district attorney’s office, and the United Nations. The project provided free legal assistance to indigent detainees in the civil prison. During this work, he came across the case of a 16-year-old girl who was detained on the account of infanticide. When Mr. Bijou went to see her in the prison, she told him the horrible story about her life in prison where she had been held for over a year without ever having been to court for even a preliminary trial. She had been arrested in her remote village and transferred to the prison soon after giving birth on her own, having kept her pregnancy resulting from rape a secret; she wasn’t even given the chance to see a doctor. Orphaned, she had no money and her only aunt never visited because of distance and poverty. Herve Bijou took her case to the criminal court and she was set free of all charges. This success was the first of many as Mr. Bijou got more and more involved in the project. While concerned by the failure of the legal and penitentiary system in Haiti, and already looking for a way to make a change, it was her story and many other ones like it that gave him a purpose and deepened his motivation and determination to give legal assistance to those who could not afford a lawyer. Later, Mr. Bijou co-founded an association of law students whose aim was also to provide legal assistance to indigent detainees.

The Penitentiary Reform of 1995 turned over the administration of the prisons, previously in care of the army which was dismantled the same year, to the newly formed National Penitentiary Administration. It was necessary to have the civil prisons in the care of a constitutional entity specially created for that purpose, to ameliorate the facilities, and to establish a process to facilitate the delivery of justice. Mr. Bijou’s law school thesis was about whether 10 years later the Penitentiary Reform of 1995 had brought any change to the condition of prisoners in Jeremie. With barely 12 cells for a population of over 100 persons and with no distinction between detainees and convicted, or between adults and minors, the facility painted a clear picture of how prisoners were treated and was far from the spirit of the Reform.

Realizing that we could initiate a major change in the system, Maha-Lilo decided to work on starting a project whose purpose would be to provide free legal assistance to indigent detainees and represent them in court. The dream is to extend the same legal aid not only to Jeremie, but also, over the years, to the others cities willing to participate in the program. We believe that every accused, just by the fact that they are human, no matter the extent of the accusation, have the right to be represented and have a fair and just trial.

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