Trendspotting: Assisting Haiti
By Stephen A. Carter (03/25/2010)

Mostly we are unable to comprehend how something this horrific was visited upon people who had so little already. A principle of grieving (and healing) is the notion of shared sacrifice, yet we are hard pressed to imagine this level of loss. Even the ravages of Katrina did not leave us with the sense that we must start over in practically every sense.

A favorite author of mine, Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Writing from the personal loss of his young son, Kushner reminds us that the distribution of suffering in the world is unfair. Human conscience requires that we consider: why Haiti and not Hoboken? Many have thought Kushner said “why” rather than “when,” but the rabbi was smart enough to leave the “why” answer to a myriad of belief systems, but not exclusively to any one in particular. With some trepidation, we accept the unfairness doctrine and ask how to respond.

The Greek author Plutarch, as you will recall from your freshman philosophy class, said that “good fortune will elevate even petty minds, and give the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high places they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune.” In other words, this is our time to be seen, heard and felt as the future of Haiti is reimagined.

First Responder

How we respond to the tragedy, and any such loss for humankind, will probably define the nobility of spirit of which Plutarch spoke. Certainly cash is an excellent place to start, but the long-term need is about the recreation of a notion of gravitas in a society that has been ripped apart.

While the immediate need is to save lives and resettle the homeless in safe areas, to achieve a promising future and not simply a modicum of creature comforts for the present means adapting a new vision for the criminal justice system.

Everyone in the correctional community is aware that the central prison in Port-au-Prince was destroyed beyond apparent repair. Many staff and prisoners died, and thousands of prisoners simply walked away. Since the assurance of public safety has for centuries involved incapacitation of dangerous predators, one basis for a future stable Haitian society will involve the re-creation of the correctional system.

In the near term, the correctional system will require the very basics of staff, shelter, food and medical supplies. The ACA International Relations Committee has previously provided such to Haiti for prisons. With the Mid-Winter Conference convening at the time of this article, I am certain that the North American correctional community will rise to the call for support under the capable leadership and inspiration of John May, Gary Hill and Bob Goble — all of whom have organized assistance to Haiti in the past.

Post-Crisis Corrections?

Last October, at the annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association in Barbados, a team of architects, planners, builders and vendors agreed to take on the task of developing a prototypical design for an “instant prison” in post-conflict situations. Recent e-mail traffic between the United Nations and the ICPA suggests that the opportunity to test this pro bono initiative could be in a post-tragedy, rather than a conflict, situation.

Jointly and separately, the ACA and ICPA are organizations with memberships that possess the talents and initiative to assist in the short- and long-term rebuilding of the Haitian correctional system. 

Over the coming years, billions of dollars from individuals, organizations, and national governments will be made available to the people of Haiti. If the response to Katrina is the model, we will contribute according to our financial elasticity and quickly return to personal, community and national responsibilities. The local community will be left to define the future of its citizens. Through the eyes of others, our opinions of the future of corrections in Haiti will be formed. And our feeling of a “nobility of spirit” will last until shaken again.

If a persistent feeling of anxiety occupies the minds of those responsible for developing and implementing a new vision of corrections, this is understandable. Given the task, and, I suspect, the future resources, to start anew in defining how Haiti will manage criminal behavior, where should they begin? Does a future government focus on the causes of crime, the cures to crime or the consequences of crime? Of course, the answer is a carefully constructed balance of all three, and other factors, but the tendency will be to move quickly to focus on the consequences of crime, including sanctions and prisons, and save the consideration of causes and cures for a more distant future.

Justice by Design

Of course, the citizens of Haiti are entitled to be safe in new homes and future neighborhoods and on the newly paved streets, which requires the enforcement of laws and the incapacitation of miscreants.

However, virtually starting over with a rebuilding of the correctional infrastructure is an opportunity to improve the interconnectedness of the criminal justice system. To do less would be to extend the residue of this tragedy to the children who have a future because of the heroic efforts of so many courageous people.

As the exhausting recovery and relief effort concludes and the tedious process of rebuilding commences, the international criminal justice community could provide a lasting contribution by supplementing financial resources with technical assistance through many voluntary organizations. The United Nations has already begun to contact nations and organizations to provide qualified boots on the ground to meet the immediate needs of re-establishing a criminal justice system. Beyond the establishment of order, the need will be to create sustainable solutions that address causes, cures and consequences of criminal behavior.

Throughout the early days of this crisis, on-site reporters constantly referred to the spirit and resilience of the Haitian people. A piece in the New York Times offered this quote from William Faulkner: “I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice, and endurance.” 

Through this earthquake, we have learned more about compassion, sacrifice, and endurance and been afforded another opportunity to contemplate how we respond when bad things inevitably happen to good people.

Giving is a good first response; assuring that we influence whatever part of the criminal justice world we occupy through more compassionate and transferrable actions is not a bad start on the second response.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a member of the Correctional News Editorial Advisory Board.

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