http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/co ... 01927.html
Haiti's Lost Boys
Port-au-Prince Prison Reflects Overwhelming Problems Facing Country's Children
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 3, 2007; A01
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.
But releases are few at Fort Dimanche, and a relentless stream of youngsters flows into the prison, the loud clang of metal gates signaling the beginning of an ordeal with no foreseeable end.
Little Baron's path to Fort Dimanche began on Port-au-Prince's airport road, where street children live amid the stench of rotting mountains of garbage. Like countless Haitian children, he was pushed into the streets by parents who couldn't afford to raise him, he says. By age 5, he was sleeping in the rusted carcasses of burned cars and picking through garbage heaps for food.
With no government social services to aid him, Little Baron gravitated toward "the big guys," his name for the young thugs who dominate the slums where he foraged. He became a kind of gofer, running errands that he won't talk about.
"I did favors," he said cautiously during a break between classes. "I did what I had to do to eat."
One of those favors -- he won't say which -- landed him a year ago at Fort Dimanche and Cell C-4. He shares the approximately 20-by-12-foot cell with 28 other boys, 13 of whom sleep on the concrete floor because there are not enough bunks. The cell has its own hierarchy -- one of the oldest boys at the prison, a lanky 16-year-old, decides who sleeps on the floor.
"Some of these big guys are rapists and kidnappers," Little Baron whispered. "They boss us around."
When the cell door latched shut one recent afternoon, the noise inside was deafening, and the nearby latrine cast a foul odor into the crowded space. Little Baron took a flying leap into his bunk, trailed by a skinny kid who caught up with him and pounded him in the ribs.
In the next bunk, 11-year-old Ricardo Exgentis broke into a rap song he'd written during an arts class.
"Life is not easy," Ricardo rapped in sing-songy Creole. "Separation. We don't know our brother, our sister. We living like dogs. That's bad for Haiti."
Ricardo, who was arrested for banditry and sent here more than two years ago, took his first shower at Fort Dimanche. Living on the streets, he washed only when he could afford a bucket of cold water. In prison, Penette-Kedar's group has taught him how to bathe properly and brush his teeth.
But the shower still feels new and strange to Ricardo. He says he feels uncomfortable being naked among all those boys and sometimes flees without rinsing off the soap.
Talking about prison life made him angry. Rapping offered an escape.
"Give me a chance, that way I'll be able to tell the truth," he sang. "I'm rapping for all the kids in prison. I'm rapping for the mothers that's trying to make something out of nothing."
Ricardo's rapping was drowned out by the wall-mounted television clicking on. Three boys climbed onto an upper bunk and leaned forward, entranced by the explosions and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns in an action movie featuring Asian film star Chow Yun-Fat.
Pierre Sonson, a pensive 10-year-old who is not related to Little Baron, raved about Chow's clothes. He and the other inmates wear hand-me-downs, some with unlikely provenances. The boy next to him was decked out in a "Girls Softball" T-shirt from Sonoma, Calif., wine country.
"They look clean, they look like they smell good," Pierre said of the actors. "I'd like to smell good."
When the movie ended, Pierre and Jenson Germain, 11, talked excitedly about an upcoming holiday.
"There will be bands," Jenson said, his voice rising.
They smiled at the thought, but they were soon frowning. A tall boy with a knife scar on his face had butted roughly into the conversation. "You're not going to be released for the party," he said. "Face it, you're not going to have any fun."
Jenson, who has been imprisoned for nearly two years, gulped back what might have been a sign of weakness -- a tear. "I don't cry," he said a few minutes later.
Little Baron, tugging at his waistband, sidled up next to Jenson. The prison has no pants small enough for him, so he strings a shoelace through two belt loops and pulls it tight. Little Baron thrust his right foot into the air, imitating a karate kick he saw on television. His pants slipped to his knees. He and Jenson fell onto a bunk laughing.
Outside, a woman walked into the courtyard. This was a rare sight -- a mother visiting her son.
Yola Aeme settled onto a bench and stared wordlessly at her 16-year-old son, Antoine Menchy, who has spent a year and a half here. Aeme, 38, still seethes about the day her son was arrested. She was frantic when he didn't come home. No one had told her about the arrest.
"There's nobody I can see or talk to, no lawyer or anybody," Aeme said dejectedly. "I have no hope that they'll release him."
Antoine bunks next to a wisecracking 16-year-old with delicate, curled eyelashes named Rikensen Louis. Rikensen spends great chunks of his free time hunched over a pad of paper composing letters that he tries, always unsuccessfully, to persuade prison guards to relay to a judge.
"How you doing, Majesty?" Rikensen wrote recently. "I already spent 10 months in prison without knowing why would you think of me mister?"
Rikensen, who says he was imprisoned for stealing a radiator, stuffs his letters into a purple shirt. He always writes exactly the same words. Over and over. He's lost count of how many letters he has written.
When he gets mad, he throws out all the letters and vows to stop writing. But weeks pass with no sign of hope, he said, and soon he finds himself writing those same words all over again.
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