FOR most it was a terrifying, living, breathing nightmare. For some it was an opportunity.
As the streets of Port-au-Prince rose up and buildings crumbled, 4,500 inmates of the notorious Prison Civile dodged falling masonry, stepped over dead bodies, squeezed through new gaps in cell walls and rushed the gate.
The 20 prison guards – desperately outnumbered and short of ammunition – thought better of confrontation.
Killers, gang leaders, rapists, and kidnappers joined the chaos outside. So did the innocent, those without convictions, and those awaiting trial.
Nobody would stay in this place unless compelled to.
“I was out for one year and four days,” Francois Richardson (22), a taciturn printer accused of attempted murder says, his face brightening at the memory.
“I thought I could stay free because I am a good guy. Getting arrested again as a fugitive, and being brought back here? It is like coming to death.”
Approximately 630 ‘fugitives’ from January 12, 2010 remain at large. The rest are dead, or have been brought back.
It’s morally questionable, but you could find yourself rooting for the 630 outside.
The Titanic - the main block of Haiti’s national jail - was largely unscathed and its three storeys of dirty concrete still dominates.
But now, with other blocks damaged, it houses 1,640 inmates. It was designed to hold 1,050 fewer. Senior prison sources concede it is “a dangerous mess”, but plans for a new US-funded prison are years from fruition.
Today, poking out from each of Titanic’s barred windows are hands and feet of senior inmates, seeking fresh air. It is 11am but the temperature in the cells is already 35C. Junior prisoners don’t get a turn at the window. Indeed, they may not get a chance to sleep.
“We are 98 in one cell,” Gideon Molongo (32), an animated, dreadlocked Cameroonian says. “The cell is for 20. So there is not room for everyone to lie down to sleep. Some sleep standing up, if they can.”
Paul Colson Heurtelou, the stern but polite prison director, is adamant this isn’t true. But unfortunately “it is not possible” to see inside.
“We have 150 officers - not enough for safety,” he says quietly as dozens peer down from a gloomy cell.
“We are unarmed inside for security reasons.”
Sixteen hundred inmates in Titanic alone versus 50 guards on a shift is a sobering thought.
“I don’t exaggerate but in the whole of the Haitian police I think ours is the most at risk job, and that makes it the most difficult job,” he says.
However, Molongo is adamant the horror stories – from baking powder used to bulk up meagre food rations, causing diarrhoea, to regular violence and rape – are true.
“We don’t have a toilet in the cell. We only have a shower,” he says.
“You go in a plastic bag, and you send it outside.”
So it is not only water dripping down the facade into murky pools on the ground, adding to the stomach-turning stench.
You might ask, so what? This is prison - if you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime, and all that.
But that assumes they did the crime.
“Only 5pc of the people in here are serving a sentence having been convicted of a crime,” Insp Heurtelou confirms.
“So 19 out of 20 here are in pre-detention.”
Some of those are here seven years.
In fact, less than 400 of the 4,134 total held today have even been to court. Others don’t know what they are accused of.
While there is little doubt that many are, indeed, killers, gang leaders, rapists and kidnappers, tracking one down with a conviction in here isn’t that much easier than outside.
“They said I kidnapped someone,” Alex Nerestant (21), a muscular young man, here since 2008, explains. “The police broke my teeth and burned my house but I deny it.
“Not getting to court is the biggest issue. It looks really bad to people on the outside as they presume we have done something as we are in prison for so long.”
Later a low chanting begins in Titanic and gets louder. They are singing gospel songs following the death of a fellow inmate from TB. But it is truly a godforsaken place.
IN the notorious sprawling slum of Cite Soleil, a couple of miles closer to the port, Paul Rammond Desire (33) stands in the back of a Ford pick-up holding his T65 assault rifle in both hands, surveying the scene.
He doesn’t agree with Insp Heurtelou’s assessment that officers in Prison Civile have the most difficult job in the police system.
He points to bullet holes across the back of the pick-up.
“There were gangsters meeting and we found out, but when we went there they immediately started shooting,” he explains.
“We had to lie down in the back and hope. We didn’t have much ammunition. We shot back, but not too much.”
He is on patrol with three colleagues through the neighbourhoods of Belecourt and Boston – names synonymous with gangland murders, violent kidnappings and extreme poverty.
Until recently, the UN considered this the most-dangerous place on earth.
There is no sewage system, water and electricity are hard to come, and a fresh wave of gang violence has recently broken out.
The very next day a family of five is shot and burned to death after a ‘joke’ with a gang member is taken badly.
Yet this truck is the only vehicle available to the 96 police officers who work the slum.
And they are tasked with maintaining law and order among 500,000.
As we inch through narrow rutted streets, past open sewers, the truck almost touching front doors on both sides, another policeman, Jean Baptiste Alain (30), starts shouting: “Former gangsters? New gangsters? We buy all of them. Have you any at home?”
In the past, police would have dished out frontier justice here, in the form of beatings and shootings.
Now, following international best practice, they increasingly aim to arrest – with repercussions for space at Prison Civile.
The residents, with long experience of corrupt and violent ‘authority’ figures, eye Alain suspiciously from doorways.
Desire joins in: “Miaow, miaow,” he laughs, as he spots a ‘mouse’ - one young man suddenly dropping the wheelbarrow he had been carrying and racing away.
The officers don’t take the bait. Heavily-armed they may be, but experience has made them cautious.
“We were ambushed a year ago,” Desire explains. “There were 15 of them, and there was a shootout.” Three of the five on patrol today were involved. Desire was shot twice in the leg.
“I genuinely don’t know how we fought back. There were rumours that five of them died. But they are just rumours.”
Other rumours suggest more than 100 officers were let go in Port-au-Prince recently after authorities vetted their lifestyle and salary, and concluded they were on the take.
Maybe some were based in Cite Soleil. Maybe €250 a month salary isn’t enough to put your life on the line every day.
Immediately beside the police headquarters here is the base for the 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, with a $500m annual budget.
“When we are in police headquarters and we hear shooting, we go out. The UN? They go inside,” Desire laughs.
His boss, Commissioner Alex Pierre-Louis , takes a more diplomatic tone, while confirming “some tensions”.
“The UN is helping us a lot in terms of policing,” he says, admitting he is envious of their numbers
“If I had 100 more officers I could control the whole of Cite Soleil, even when it is ‘hot’,” he insists.
And perhaps the UN could hand over one of those massive armoured carriers that stayed resolutely behind 12-foot walls during our visit.
THIS ARTICLE WAS SUPPORTED BY THE SIMON CUMBERS MEDIA FUND.