posted on Mon, Jan. 02, 2006
THE REV. GERARD JEAN-JUSTE
Languishing and sick in a
BY PAUL FARMER
“Lord, when was it we saw you sick and in
prison?” – A question from the Gospel according to Matthew and
surely a pertinent question for an American doctor working in his own
country, Haiti, Siberia or Rwanda.
PORT-AU-PRINCE – From
time to time I see patients who are both sick and imprisoned. Those in
Haiti are among the most unfortunate – a U.S. court this year said that
Haiti’s prisons were “reminiscent of a slave ship.” A commission from
the Organization of American States recently visited Haiti’s National
Penitentiary and reported that, of its 1,054 inmates, only nine had
been convicted of any crime. And prisoners in Haiti receive almost
nothing in the way of effective medical care.
Haiti’s best known prisoner is a Catholic priest, Father Gerard “Gerry”
Jean-Juste. Born and raised in Haiti, he was the first Haitian ordained
a priest in the United States. Inspired by liberation theology, Father
Gerry has worked with the homeless, uprooted and poor. He directed
Miami's Haitian Refugee Center from 1979 to 1989, which championed the
rights of Haitian immigrants, most of them newly arrived “boat people”
fleeing persecution and misery in Haiti.
But Father Gerry traded the comforts of Florida for the slums of his
native country. Charismatic and warm, he turned his attention to
feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and putting children in school.
This work became more difficult following the February 2004 ouster of
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was threatened, harassed and
beaten. In October 2004, he was arrested illegally while feeding
children their only meal of the day.
When the government could present no evidence of wrongdoing, a judge
released Father Gerry after seven weeks in jail. The government then
forced the judge out of office and found a more compliant substitute.
The persecution was renewed last July 21, when he was arrested, again
illegally, at a funeral. He has been imprisoned for five months despite
the government producing no evidence against him.
In August, Amnesty International adopted Father Gerry as a prisoner of
conscience. In December, 42 U.S. representatives called for his
immediate release, as have Sens. Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin and
Christopher Dodd, Human Rights First, the International Association of
Democratic Lawyers and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Demonstrations in Port-au-Prince, Miami, Boston, New York and San
Francisco have called for his release. In late December alone, hundreds
of letters asking for his immediate release flooded the offices of
Haitian officials and the U.S. Embassy.
I visited Father Gerry just before Christmas because I had heard
reports that his health was deteriorating. He told me first to think of
fellow prisoners who may be in worse shape. He also insisted on
praying, then singing, then introducing me to some of his jailers.
“Some of them are really quite nice,” he said cheerfully. I finally
examined him, obtained the necessary specimens and brought them to the
When his neck first began to swell some months ago, he thought it was
due to a beating he'd received in jail. But the swelling on both sides
of his neck increased, followed by fatigue and swollen lymph nodes
A definitive diagnosis is in: Father Gerry has leukemia, possibly a
rapidly progressive form. So he is not only a prisoner of conscience,
one of hundreds in Haiti, but a sick prisoner who needs more than
prayers and letters of support. He needs proper medical care and,
probably, chemotherapy. As we know from long experience in central
Haiti, it's hard enough to deliver chemotherapy anywhere in the
country. It's simply not possible to do so in a Haitian prison.
Time is running out for a fine man who has done much to assuage the
suffering of the Haitian poor. Those who know Haiti believe that it's
well within the power of the U.S. administration, the Haitian
government's principal international patron, to have Father Gerry
released immediately for the medical attention he needs.
“I’m sure I’ll be out of prison soon,” he told me on Christmas Eve.
“But what about all the others? They need help too.” What is needed is
to have those calling the shots in Haiti – many of them in the
United States – reverse the policies that have filled Haiti’s prisons
with expediently chosen “suspects” against whom no charges have been
presented. The way to start is to release Father Gerry for proper
medical evaluation and care.
Farmer, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has
worked in Haiti for more than 20 years.