Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Christian Aid Worker Danny Pye Has Been Held in a Haitian Prison Since October

"I am amazed that I could spend four months in prison with no charge and the embassy does nothing," said Danny Pye. "It's just weird." But so far, Pye is lucky. He's only had malaria, several bouts of gastroenteritis and some kind of fungal infection—but not cholera. Many of the other 20-odd men that share his small room have not been as lucky.

Pye, an American, has been in prison in Jacmel since Oct. 13, 2010. He has not been charged with any crime. The only people who seem to know this are a few friends in Haiti, the country's Ministry of Justice, newly elected Haitian senator (and former Jacmel mayor) Edo Zenny, the judge that refuses to sign his release, the NGOs with which he's been affiliated, his wife, Leann, the 22 Haitian children whose only home is the orphanage that he and his wife built—and the U.S. Embassy.

A friend of Pye's was able to get a cell phone into the Jacmel prison a couple days ago and he spoke with The Awl for the first time.

Thanks to cholera, the prison is quite literally a toilet. The only new structure at the prison is a building that's been painted green and white, the color combo reserved in Haiti for medical buildings. This overcrowded prison within a prison houses inmates suffering from cholera, TB and HIV.

Reinforced last July after the earthquake, a Red Cross engineer said that Jacmel's prison was vastly improved by the addition of bunk beds because "each bed has three levels and is big enough for at least six people to sleep in."

Pye's wife Leann says the Red Cross' already-horrible description of the prison "makes it sound much better than it actually is."

Pye's cell, which he estimates is 10 by 12 feet, houses 25 prisoners. (That's fewer than previously, when people were getting cholera.)

By car, Jacmel (Jakmèl) is four hours south of Port-au-Prince, on the south seaside of the island's long peninsula. The city itself is home to 40,000 or so and the surrounding area another 100,000. With beaches and architecture built in the wonderful style of New Orleans by wealthy 19th-century merchants, Jacmel is not the desperate urban picture of Port's Cité Soleil, the only Haiti most Americans know exists.

Pye is not one of the aid workers who flooded into the nation after 2010's earthquake. In 2003, Danny Pye and his wife Leanne moved to Haiti to start an orphanage. They established the Joy in Hope Ministries in 2008, which now operates 16 schools that teach over 3,000 children. Danny and his wife themselves operate an orphanage, today home to more than 20 children: Mackendy, Evens, Berline, Blanca, Omega, Loudrige, Rico, Chachoue, Lovelie, Toto, Ticarlis, Magdaline, Elinda, Woody, Mackenson, Diane, Nerry, Nesley, Vania, Patrick, Tina, Slendia, Riann.

Last year, Danny and Leann separated from the ministry they founded to go their own way. After some negotiations and conflict, Pye and a representative of the organization appeared before a local magistrate on October 13th, to negotiate the legal dividing of property and other assets. Pye, to everyone's surprise, was ordered to prison.

No charge was leveled by the judge against Pye. He was only told that he would not be released until he signed over his old assets—which he did, on October 16th. His family was then told he was being held in the court's custody, pending an investigation. Haitian law allows judges to imprison a person for up to 90 days without charge while awaiting an investigation.

Danny's wife immediately contacted the embassy.

Ryan Price, a longtime resident of Haiti and missionary with the Fellowship of Christian Optometrists who took the phone in to Pye, said that, recently, "they have been redoing the sewers under the prison, so the whole block smells like sewage." Price said that Danny does get outside for some time every day; he used some of that time to carry water to other prisoners. Recently, "he is too weak to do this." Being out in the yard can be dangerous, as fights are a regular occurrence. Fights aren't the real danger, Price said: it's the guards who storm the yard intent on breaking it up. They swing batons at anything that isn't already lying flat on its face.

"Physically, I'm feeling better. I'm back to holding down food and liquid," said Pye. That wasn't the case two weeks ago, when Pye began not sleeping at all and retching after meals. The "food" he holds down is crackers.

There are about 200 people on his small floor. Pye said that a third of them are here for trumped up charges, or no charges at all. "When I first got here I thought it was closer to 50 percent," Pye said. "But then you get to know people a little and… well…." He knows at least one cellmate who has been held for years with trial. "On Christmas Eve, a 14-year-old kid was brought in for stealing a goat worth maybe 12 dollars. He still hasn't seen a judge," he said.

It was also on Christmas Eve that Pye was released—for the first time. But, as he was walking out to meet his pregnant wife, Pye was spun around and returned to his cell. He didn't even make it to the car: the same judge had issued a new charge, this time for possessing illegal documents.

It's not been confirmed that those "documents" (Pye's government-issued identification card) are "illegal." It was the judge himself who did not understand the very laws he was there to enforce.

* * *

A reliable and trustworthy justice system can be considered the most important building block of a functional democracy. Lisa Quirion, a former Deputy Warden at the Correctional Service of Canada who worked with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (which goes by the acronym MINUSTAH), said (before the earthquake), "People want to build hospitals, they want to build schools, they want to put a well in the town, but nobody wants to invest in prisons."

It's not just unsexy to invest in prisons, but in the whole justice system in general. Still, in the 1990s, USAID provided around $27 million to fund the Administration of Justice Program in Haiti which brought in American legal experts to improved magistrate, prosecutorial and judicial management training as well as expanding citizen access to justice services.

Today, a new joint program between the UNDP and MINUSTAH to improve "ethics, judicial competences, the application of just laws, public persecution, individual liberties in the judicial process, and economic and financial infractions" plans to involve "roughly one hundred" prosecutors… "by December 2011." A spokesman for the UNDP said that the entire 2011 budget for training in the field of justice in Haiti is $500,000. (That's a 100 percent increase over the 2010 budget of $250,000 for training in Haiti's justice system.)

* * *

On February 18th, the head of Haiti's justice system came to visit Pye, and told him that the judge had admitted the false documents charges were fraudulent. The judge, however, wants to revisit a contempt of court charge. Pye was told that he will be out next week. "It's kind of the running joke of the place," Pye said. "Each week it's, 'Oh, you'll be out next week.'"

"I haven't packed a bag," he said.

Pye's release would mean he might not miss the birth of his son. Leann remained in Haiti for much of February, to care for the orphanage. While seven months pregnant, she would ride on a scooter taxi to get supplies. She is back in Florida, where she and Danny own a small home, and her delivery date is imminent.

With Leann gone, the children from the orphanage bring Pye what meals they can.

As forgiving and good-spirited as Pye is (his positive disposition and good humor over the phone were remarkable), he is exasperated with the U.S. Embassy inaction. "I've never heard of a situation in which an American was held for four months without charge and the embassy did nothing," he said. Medicines and other necessities have been supplied by friends or family. "I'm more disappointed than anything else," he said.

Leann said that the embassy has, at best, given the situation a perfunctory treatment. Danny said that the few times embassy officials visited, their conversations were short and unproductive. Leann said they just told her to go hire a Haitian lawyer, which she did.

In November, Leann sought assistance from her U.S. Senator, George LeMieux. The response was an email with a PDF attachment telling her that the senator, due to privacy rules, would not follow up until Leann could "print, complete and return it to our office via fax." In Haiti, faxing anything was impossible. Leann tried to get the paperwork together—and then this January, LeMieux was replaced by Marco Rubio.

Leann repeatedly followed up with the embassy. The embassy said it could not take diplomatic action, seemingly saying that it had no influence in the nation beyond what existed in the most formal of diplomatic rules. Just a year earlier, in a cable published by Wikileaks, the Embassy spoke of how a "key to our success and that of Haiti" was the embassy "managing" President Preval. How effective can the State Department be in influencing Haitian politics and reconstruction if it can't even move the wheels for one American in prison?

* * *

There's a deeper irony, because when the diplomatic community needed Danny Pye, he was there.

Seventy percent of structures in Jacmel were damaged or destroyed after the quake. With the aid focus on Port-au-Prince, few supplies reached beyond the city. What aid could get in had no on-the-ground organization. Creole speakers, Pye and Leann were able to quickly organize and reopen the airport. The two, with a team of Haitians, staffed and ran the Jacmel airport until the Canadian military arrived. Experienced in the area, and trusted by the community, the Pyes were invaluable in the international aid effort for which the diplomatic and NGO community took, and continues to take, so much credit.

And just a couple years ago, the US Embassy asked the Pyes to serve as wardens for the Sud-est (one of Haiti's ten regional départements in which Jacmel is located).

Two weeks ago, Leann received an email from Brandon Doyle, the embassy's vice consul. Doyle wrote that the embassy had "learned that, unfortunately, no action has been taken on his case." Doyle went on to acknowledge that "this can now be considered a serious violation of Haitian law since your husband has been detained without charges for a period longer than allowable according to the laws of Haiti." Doyle said that the embassy would prepare a formal diplomatic note addressed to the Haitian Ministry of Justice "calling for action on Mr. Pye’s case." Doyle wrote this action is "the most formal and forceful course of action available to us and allowable under diplomatic practice" and that the note would be "sent early next week."

That email, of February 8th—a Wednesday—,meant that, after months, the embassy would not be taking any action until nearly a week later.

If the embassy's limp official reaction to Pye's situation is deplorable (and it is), its public reaction is inexcusable. Why, to this day, has the embassy not issued a public statement about Danny Pye?

The vice consul is certainly correct describing the "note" to the Ministry of Justice as the only course allowed it "under diplomatic practice." But this says nothing about the use of the press, easily as powerful a diplomatic tool as a formal note. Within a day of the arrest of an American accused of shooting citizens in Pakistan, embassy officials were publicly calling for his release. The State Department has loudly, and continually, issued statements calling for the release of the American hikers arrested in Iran (who are now on trial). State Department officials have even issued a demand for the release from Syrian prison of a young blogger… who isn't an American. When Khairy Ramadan Aly, an Egyptian carpenter employed by the embassy in Cairo, was killed just two weeks ago, the State Department issued statement of condolences from Secretary Clinton.

The embassy in Port-au-Prince as well issues press releases all the time. But not for Pye, even as he rotted away in a U.S.-funded hellhole, kept from doing a job that U.S. governmental bodies are proving themselves increasingly incapable of performing.

We spoke with a few journalists, one for a major US national source, all of who said they had never heard of the Pye case. Asked if they would have pursued the story had the the embassy in Port-au-Prince issued a statement about it, all confirmed that it absolutely would be newsworthy.

The embassy has not responded to numerous calls and emails made by The Awl.

Pye is a missionary but he's of an entirely different stripe from the ministries with logos printed on every bit of aid they hand out. Pye went to Haiti to do with his bare hands what billions of dollars of American aid was failing to do. Pye, a U.S. taxpayer, remains in a MINUSTAH-run U.S.-subsidized prison.

But then this is Haiti, a place few can find a reason to care about. Unless, of course, 300,000 die… or Sarah Palin visits.

Residents of Florida, the Pye's representatives are:

Senator Bill Nelson
Ph: (202) 224-5274

Rep. Vern Buchanan
Ph: (202) 225-5015

Senator Marco Rubio
Ph: 202-224-3041

An especially good target for pressure is Republican Senator Marco Rubio. As a member of the Christ Fellowship Church in West Kendall and a favorite of the Christian Coalition, one would think Rubio would be especially interested in (and in an especially good position to take advantage of the benefits of) seeing to the speedy release of one of the more (genuinely) faithful and pious of his constituents.

Never contacted a member of Congress? Email makes it easy, fast and free of cooties. For example, a message might go:

Dear Sir,

I was shocked to learn that Danny Pye, a Christian missionary, has been held in a prison in Jacmel, Haiti, for more than four months without charge. I was even more shocked to learn that the U.S. Embassy is aware he is there, admits he is innocent and yet claims it is helpless to do anything.

Danny Pye, a resident of Florida, desperately needs your help.

Here is the final kick to the stomach.

Through it all, Pye tells us his greatest fear, a sentiment echoed by his wife, is that this will somehow jeopardize their family's opportunity to stay in Haiti and continue to operate the orphanage and school. "I plan on supporting them for years to come," Pye said, just before handing the phone back.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.

13 Comments / Post A Comment

hockeymom (#143)

Great reporting.

C_Webb (#855)

Emails sent.

Holy shit, Abe – between this and your Wisconsin reports, you've been doing some amazing journalism on this site lately!

This report is awesome. I hope it does some good.

wiilliiaamm (#225)

Excellent reporting.

caw_caw (#5,641)

Contacted someone with ties to our foreign service in Haiti
Crossing fingers

Crunchbird (#1,002)

It absolutely sucks that this guy is being held without charges, and frankly it's pretty astonishing that the US government hasn't taken a more active role in securing his release (or at least more timely due process). That said, that are some interesting, wonky details to this story that have been left out of this particular article, and I'm curious if that was deliberately done to make sure it came across as sympathetically as possible.

First, the "orphanages" founded by Pye and his colleagues seem more like group adoption homes, where Haitian children (some with living parents) are absorbed into the extended families of American Christians, with the ultimate goal of bringing all of Haiti "to Jesus." Not that there's anything wrong with that, and it may be a lot more more humane a model than the institutional, non-familial orphanages that are the the norm, but it's still a little bit odd. The orphanage that Pye and his wife run is basically his house, although it's owned by the mission group he founded. And if he's anything like the other Joy in Hope missionaries, he refers to the orphanage's charges as *his* children … again, probably better for their emotional welfare, but certainly not standard child services M.O. This also may partially explain the animosity of the judge, as this kind of practice is often viewed more as a form of aggressive cultural imperialism than as genuine charity.

Second, the mission group that Pye founded fired him, allegedly "for cause," in September, and attempted to gradually repossess all the property that Pye and his wife had purchased with donated funds. The dispute that had them in court on the day he was taken into custody was apparently the result of Pye's (illegal?) confiscation of vehicles that had purchased for other missionaries or aspects of the business, but which were registered in his name.

Third, I know that Americans are the most important people in the world and all, but the fact that this isn't international news . . . well, it's just not international news. The treatment that Pye is receiving is, apparently, fairly typical for that particular jail in that particular city … the only thing that makes it worthy of our attention, and your impassioned reporting, is that he's an American. The U.S. embassy is aware of the situation and involved (you've even seen the correspondence), and the case has reached high enough in Haitian circles that the "head of Haiti's justice system" came to Jacmel to pay a personal visit to Pye in jail. Maybe when Eric Holder starts paying personal, reassuring visits to all the men held without charges at Guantanamo we can legitimately start giving Haiti grief about this case . . .

Abe Sauer (#148)

Is this Danny Pye's life story? Clearly not. The details of his splitting from his former organization were left out because they aren't part of this story, which is about the wrongful imprisonment, which both Pye and the former org admit has nothing to do with the organization (which advocated for his release as well and has generously assisted financially with Pye's transition). Add that to the "not that there's anything wrong with that" statement and the justification for the judge's actions and is seems like you're subtly suggesting he might maybe deserve to be in prison… Are you suggesting he might maybe deserve to be in prison? Because it sounds like you're saying he maybe deserves to be in prison. (And, before you answer, remember that the Embassy, a Haitian senator, and Haiti's own Ministry of Justice have all confirmed that he absolutely should not be, nor ever should he have been, in prison and the sole problem is a judge who, having already once misinterpreted the law, refuses to sign a release order).

That you drop the hint "(illegal?)" in a question means you're not paying attention. See above re: how all above orgs have confirmed that he is wrongly imprisoned, which means, to answer your question if it was "illegal?" No. As noted, Pye complied with the legal agreement on the 16th.

And don't stop there. It's not just that he's an American, but that he's an American that happens to be friends with a person who happens to be friends with another person who happens to be a distant family member of mine. So, see, he's actually receiving extra special treatment. For all we know, there are 10 other Americans rotting in Haiti's jails that are more deserving. In fact, we should halt all other posting and have a daily column relating the story of one Haitian prisoner. The fact that we don't is irresponsible.

By your reductive reasoning, no affront to justice or sad story is worth attention unless it happens to be the greatest such example currently taking place in the world. (Hitler!)

It's good to have you back commenting. I haven't seen your sarcastic cynicism since last summer's Target debacle, when you decided to grace us all with your deep analysis of political financial and gay rights.

And, as a personal statement, I think I've established myself on this site w/r/t Haiti and proselytizing, so you can take your sarcasm and stick it in your ear.

James127 (#10,057)

You start out "getting' the point and then there is a huge digression to Guantanomo. Whoa. Now that's a leap.
The kids are legally adopted in Haiti–just cannot leave the country.
Yes it is absurd for a US organization to take an American citizen to court in Haiti, absurd. But a refreshing focus of the report was NOT on that–but rather the even greater absurdity to the Embassy response and lack of support.

Have you been to Haiti? More than likely not. Your comments reflect your own western imperialistic views on the global orphan crisis and valid efforts to provide alternative options while retaining absolutely as much culture as possible.

I have talked to both sides and have come to the conclusion that Danny is in jail as a result of the mission organization's illegal maneuvering/reorganiztion behind the founder's back–all as a result of board member's personal agendas.

The loss to the kids and the community. Priceless.

borisadmin (#7,356)

Abe, I appreciate Crunchbird's comment and I think that a good move when someone raises questions about the motivation of your work is to sleep on it and then give a less defensive response that this one. If this is reporting in the sense that the story has public import, it ideally should enter a public sphere where questions about the form of the article (not just "what actually is happening") should be able to take place without a direct insult from the author coming directly afterward.

The impact of your comment to me was a) I'm not going to ask any questions of the Awl community of readers about your work because you're probably going to get offended; and b) ironically, your justification made me question the provenance of the story in a way that Crunchbird's comment didn't (especially when you use the journalistic terminology of ascribing your institution inquiries to "The Awl" rather than "I").

Anyway, good piece, important work you've been doing, but I think you might need to decide whether you are using the conventions of journalism or blogging and conduct your writing and commenting accordingly, one way or the other.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I appreciate the advice. And I'll be the first to admit I can be temperamental and hasty. If the comment itself hadn't been so sarcastic and if Crunchbird didn't have a history of slamming down sarcasm for sarcasm's sake, (see comment history on Target piece) I would maybe have addressed it as less of an insult and more of a genuinely curiosity about anything (which it isn't).

Tim Pye (#10,060)

Abe, Thanks for your concern and your work to bring this to light. Danny is my younger brother. God Bless. -tp

heytee (#10,100)

Great article Abe. I am a personal friend of Danny Pye and have worked with him in the trenches in Haiti pre-earthquake.

Crunchbird, first off, if you have never been to Danny's home, please do not assume that it is some group adoption homes, where Haitian children (some with living parents) are absorbed into the extended families of American Christians. It is nothing like that. First, you cannot adopt Danny's kids. They are Haitian and will continue to be Haitian. Danny is the only one that has earned the right to call the orphans his kids. I was with Danny when two little boys were living with their 80 years old grandparents after their parents both died from drinking the river water. I sat in that little hut that has one bed where 5 people slept. We took those kids home to his place because if Danny didn't help, this kids would have most likely died.
There would be no JIH missionaries if Danny didn't share his vision with the church that is now thrown him to the wolves. Danny showed me his vision of then haitian Childrens Home and the plans for making change in that country. I don't want to get into a bashing session about JIH, but please don't compare any of them with Danny.

Crunchbird, you need to understand the way off life in Haiti before you go running your mouth. Yes they lived in a house, but if you have any idea of how the other haitians live, then you know that that house is a safehaven that anyone there would love to live in. You might need to do more research about the facts before you put your American way of thinking to this situation. Things run completely different in haiti. As you sit on your white throne in America, Danny has spent the last 8 years helping the poorest people in the western hemisphere. If you are not doing anything to solve social issues, we don't need your negative outlook on a situation that you know little about.

With that said, I have seen first hand the love that Danny has for Haiti not only in word but action. I oversaw another orphanage down the road from Danny and know first hand to what kind of a person that Danny Pye is. I know its horrible that there are others like Danny's situation, but I don't know them. I am here for Danny's release and hopefully through this, others will get the same justice as well. Abe, thank you for your great article.

sarahcausa (#10,286)

Danny was a good friend of mine in high school, my grandparents lived down in Florida. I am have been following this story intently and am glad to see that this is reaching the press, the AP has published an article about it now too. I pray for Danny, his family and friends that through this God's glory would be louder than all the other gross stuff that has gone on because of the love of Danny and Leann Pye for these 22 children.

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