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Baptist volunteers endure squalid prison conditions

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (BP)–As Haitians mark the one-month anniversary of the earthquake that destroyed their capital, Port-au-Prince, 10 American missions volunteers sit in Haitian prisons, waiting to learn their fate for trying to take 33 children out of the country allegedly without proper documentation.

The 10 Baptists, most of them from two Idaho churches, received good news Thursday, but not as good of news as they had hoped. Haitian Judge Bernard Saint-Vil recommended that they be released while the investigation continues, but they apparently won’t be freed until next week at the earliest because the judge’s recommendation must first be reviewed by the prosecutor, Josephe Mannes Louis, who can agree or object to the recommendation and was quoted as saying his own recommendation won’t come until next week. The judge, though, still will have the final word.

Prayer for the prosecutor is especially needed over the weekend, a source familiar with the deliberations in Haiti told Baptist Press. The source said it is essential to pray that the prosecutor’s heart will be stirred to be merciful and to conclude the legal process.

It remains unclear whether the 10 will be able to return to the U.S. or must remain in Haiti while the investigation continues. Saint-Vil was quoted during a television interview as saying, “If the release of the Americans is granted, they will be able to leave the country, as long as their attorney provides guarantees for them.” Other reports, though, have said Saint-Vil might require them to remain in Haiti.

The conflicting and ever-changing reports have tested the patience of the families back home, who remain prayerful and hopeful that their loved ones will return soon.

The families released a statement Thursday through one of the churches — Central Valley Baptist of Meridian, Idaho — thanking people for their “continued thoughts and prayers.”

“Our confidence continues to remain both in our faith and in the attorneys that represent our people,” the statement read. “We understand that judicial proceedings take time, and even though we wanted them home yesterday … we will be just as glad to have them home tomorrow. This week family members have met together to pray … to consult legal counsel … and to consider how best to bring our people home. We know they will have challenges when we see them again.

“Their experience has been both physical and emotional. They will need time to rest and reflect. Time to embrace one another and enjoy their freedom. Time to prepare themselves for the day when they will want to face the media.”

Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, urged churches to pray for the jailed volunteers.

“I think it is providential that the Lord placed it on the hearts of Florida Baptists to select this Sunday, Feb. 14, as a day of prayer for the country of Haiti,” Oldham said. “Little did they know when they selected this date that we would be entering the third week of imprisonment for 10 Baptist volunteers.

Oldham added, “Within hours of posting 10 Ways to Pray for Haiti on ‘In All Things…Pray’ on the SBC website Wednesday, the media began reporting on Judge Saint-Vil’s anticipated recommendation to release the volunteers from prison. We give thanks to the Lord for His gracious response to the intercessory prayers of His people. While we had hoped they would already be freed to return home, we continue to pray that the prosecutor will drop all charges. We ask people of good will across the convention and around the world to pray specifically for the nation of Haiti, including focused prayer for the release of these ten detainees.”

The conditions in which the 10 are being held are certainly substandard, perhaps even inhumane.

The five female volunteers are being held in a prison located in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. A New York Times reporter, Ian Urbina, interviewed two of the women for a Feb. 8 news article that described “a scorching jail cell about 8 feet by 5 feet” with “a dirty concrete floor.” No other details about the women’s quarters were relayed in the article, but it did say that one volunteer’s feet were bandaged “from infected mosquito bites.” While the detainees said guards and other prisoners were treating them well, one of the women who is a diabetic went without insulin for a week before receiving help from an unidentified missionary. The group’s leader, Laura Silsby, told Urbina, “It has mostly been missionaries not the government that has been providing us with food and medicine.”

The men, by contrast, are imprisoned in Haiti’s notorious National Penitentiary, a facility located just a few blocks from the country’s National Palace in central Port-au-Prince that was known for squalid conditions before it was largely destroyed by the Jan. 12 quake.

The prison, which played a key role in Haiti President Rene Preval’s campaign to establish order in the country’s gang-infested slums, was the focus of a May 2008 report by the Pulitzer Center that revealed horrific conditions: up to 67 men in a single cell, human waste covering the floors, rampant abuse and high rates of tuberculosis and HIV.

That, of course, was before the Jan. 12 earthquake collapsed much of the building, allowing as many as 5,000 prisoners to escape back into the slums.

A week ago, however, Tim Morris — a former FBI agent providing security for a medical team in Haiti — spent three days in the National Penitentiary. Morris was detained at the airport in Cap Haitien when police opened his gun case to inspect a shotgun and a pistol, according to the Seattle Times. Morris said he had disclosed the weapons both before departure from the United States and upon entering Haiti. Police nonetheless handcuffed Morris and took him to a prison cell that held 46 other men.

The Redmond, Wash., resident told The Seattle Times the stifling, 18-by-18-foot cell had “no bathroom facilities except two five-gallon buckets, and, oh my … did it reek. They were absolutely inhumane conditions.” Morris said he at first was afraid the other prisoners might assault him but was relieved when the other prisoners insisted he sleep on one of the cell’s three beds because he had been arrested while trying to help the Haitian people.”

Nine of the 10 Baptists are members of Southern Baptist churches. Silsby is a member of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, as are group members Charisa Coulter, Carla Thompson and Nicole and Corinna Lankford. Three detainees are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho: pastor Paul Thompson, his son Silas and church member Steve McMullen. The other detainees are Jim Allen of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, and Drew Culberth, an assistant youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Bethel Baptist is the only church not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editors Michael Foust and Mark Kelly and editor Art Toalston.

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