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Only a few of Haiti inmates who escaped during quake recaptured

January 30, 2010 11:30pm
Of the thousands of inmates that fled Haiti's main prison in Port-au-Prince following the 12 January earthquake, only a few dozen have been captured so far, according to United Nations authorities.

In addition, influential gang leaders who escaped from the heavily damaged prison have allegedly been taking advantage of a void left by police and peacekeepers focused on disaster relief.

Officials have expressed concern that they may return to areas like the notorious Cite Soleil shantytown to try to form gangs.

Security has always been precarious in Cite Soleil, although it is far calmer then the days when it became a war zone, during the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Some of the escapees allegedly also razed the Port-au-Prince prison in an attempt to destroy records.

Eder Philippe, a local resident, said prisoners had no choice but to escape as the building came crashing down on them.

"If the roof falls down on them, they have to escape. It's up to the authorities to figure out what to do now," he said.

Prisons in Haiti function as a "preventive detention" for men on remand and inmates have to endure poor conditions in overcrowded cells where diseases like tuberculosis and chronic malnutrition are rampant.

Danielle Boisvert, the acting chief of the UN mission's corrections unit, said that more then 80 percent of the inmates that escaped had never been convicted.

"There were....prisoners who have not yet had their day in court and so we can't establish that they were in fact criminals," she said.

"What we can say is that amongst them, there were a number of criminals who had been convicted and were serving their sentences."

According to the UN in Haiti, some 5,100 prisoners escaped and so far, only 36 have been captured in La Cayes and Jacmel, although they were not among escapees that had actually been sentenced.

The United States and the UN plan on building areas to house the recaptured inmates, most likely outside the capital.

There is the potential for violence in any disaster zone where food and medical aid are unable to keep up with fast-growing hunger and mass casualties.

The danger is multiplied in Haiti, where self-designated rebels and freedom fighters—or simply neighbourhood toughs—have consistently threatened the country's fragile stability with a few weapons, some spare money for handouts and the ire of disaffected throngs.—AP
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