The “disconnect” within the Biden Administration over the humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic’s prison system, recently raised as a concern by Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, appears to be worsening.
Following the Dominican Republic’s participation at the “Democracy Delivers” event with United States Administration for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power, the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo released a statement that announced new commitments of taxpayer dollars to supporting institutional reform in the Dominican Republic.
“In recent years, the Dominican Republic has stood out as a democratic country where civil society is empowered to demand reforms, new policies and broad changes that benefit the most vulnerable,” said USAID Acting Country Director David Billings.
The condition of Dominican prisons is an abhorrent humanitarian crisis that demand intervention. Earlier this month, Rodolfo Valentín Santos, Director of the National Office of Public Defense (ONDP), reported that the number of preventive prisoners in the Dominican Republic is going up, not down. The preventive detention crisis problem is the key contributor to overcrowding in the Dominican Republic.
The picture painted from ONDP’s report is particularly bleak. The largest Dominican prison, La Victoria, was built to house 2,000 inmates. It currently has over 7,500, more than half of which are detained on a preventive basis. Inmates regularly sleep on the floor and contract fatal diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and skin conditions. According to ONDP, the prison “does not have conditions to provide regular medical examination to each of the inmates.”
This is the daily reality that the Dominican Republic’s most vulnerable population faces, and it is only getting worse. While Administrator Power and Director Billings celebrate the DR as a democratic bright spot and champion its reforms, they are completely silent on the preventive detention crisis that is exacerbating the overcrowding and health concerns in Dominican prisons.
It’s time to think about solutions. “We must rethink the problem,” ONDP’s Santos stated. “It is key to review the internationally accepted criteria for the imposition of [preventive detention], in light of the protections formulated by human rights pacts and conventions.”
This is where agencies like USAID need to intervene. It will require leadership from Washington to ensure that the Dominican Republic puts an end to the excessive use of preventive detention and finally addresses the desperate humanitarian crisis in its prisons. Instead of pro forma events followed by virtue signaling and meaningless commitments, Administrator Power and Acting Director Billings should work with their counterparts at the UN Office of Drugs and Crime and the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and listen to advocates like Director Santos and other Dominican civil rights leaders that are clamoring for international help.
Shame on USAID’S leadership in Washington and Santo Domingo for continuing to gloss over this humanitarian crisis as if it doesn’t exist. It’s well past time to ensure that the USAID’s mission works towards protecting the most vulnerable members of the Dominican Republic, and upholding democratic values.