On a humid late August afternoon in Miami — one that made the inside of C-Block feel like it was 100 degrees — incarcerated resident Renale Baptiste learned on the local news that a 7.2 earthquake had just struck his home country of Haiti.
“I was able to get through to my auntie in Port-au-Prince and she was all right, but many of her friends in Les Cayes were not answering her calls. Everyone was panicking and people were missing,” he said.
According to USA Today, the earthquake that hit the southwest peninsula of Haiti on August 14 injured 10,000 people and killed more than 2,000. The natural disaster displaced 1 million people — half of whom were children — and left 300 still missing and presumed dead. Days later, Tropical Depression Fred had pounded the island, leaving 400,000 without power and many of the newly homeless wading through stagnant wastewater in trash-filled streets.
Baptiste, a 34-year-old inmate, is one of over a hundred Haitian-Americans incarcerated at the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI), many of whom have family still living 700 miles south in Haiti. “We’re all concerned for the safety of our loved ones,” he said.
Even those who are no longer strongly connected to Haiti have been worried about the magnitude of the problems being reported.
“I don’t speak to my people in Haiti anymore, but I wonder if they’re okay,” incarcerated resident Hilbert Pierre, 37, told me one afternoon. Pierre has been incarcerated since 1999 and has extended family living on Île de La Tortue.
At ECI, many of the correctional officers are also of Haitian descent, living in Miami as part of a large Haitian diaspora which numbers about 1 million nationwide, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates in 2018.
Concern for family and friends still living in Haiti is at the top of every conversation these days among residents as well as correctional officers. One of the dorm sergeants mentioned that he still had a lot of family in Haiti, and the past month had been hell for them, but Haitians were strong people.
Following the assassination of Haiti’s leader, President Jovenel Moise in July, the West Indies republic had already been in a state of political unrest when the latest natural disasters hit, causing catastrophic damage to utilities, homes, and basic infrastructure — much of which still hasn’t been repaired since the last major earthquake in 2010.
Jean Salomon, 32, another Haitan-American prisoner at ECI, has family living in Petit that were promised housing 11 years ago, but never received help. “The Red Cross only built a handful of homes after the last earthquake, so nobody has hope right now. A lot of people are living under tarps and sheet metal.”
The domino table on the recreational yard is a busy meeting place for the Haitian-Americans living at ECI. Haitian Creole and French can be heard all around as men greet each other with handshakes, laugh and slam bones on the table. Everyone seems to be nicknamed “Zoe” and all of them smile when you call their name.
Each day they get together as a way to keep their way of life alive and stay close to one another through hard times. These men lift each other up in positive ways.
The largest meetup is a weekly class called Peace Education Development, an opportunity for men from similar backgrounds to get together and talk about food, family and memories of home.
“The class is the closest I feel to my brothers because we can sit and share things about life. We know the same hang-outs in Miami and some of us have cousins in Haiti who are friends,” Salomon shared. “We are all family in here.”
Having community support during a time of crisis is important, and even more so behind bars. In a place where some men and women have no one to talk to about their problems, a thriving and cultural kinship can make a world of difference.
After the latest devastation in Haiti, several men have told me that their families are living in fear of what’s next and crying when they talk on the phone. Although these men cannot be there to comfort their loved ones who are suffering, they said they try to be there for one another inside.
“Being around a lot of Haitians helps me stay connected,” said Pierre. “Many of us attend a Creole church service here at the prison that makes me feel closer to our culture.”
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.