With Christmas four days away, 313 former inmates will be home with their families to celebrate, thanks to generous donors of the international relief and development organization Food For The Poor. For 18 years, the charity has secured the release of nonviolent offenders in Guyana, Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica by paying their accumulated fines at Christmas and at Easter.
Hundreds of the poor, including women, in the Caribbean and Latin America are imprisoned for minor offenses because of their inability to pay their jail fines, even though the amounts are minimal.
“These prisons can quickly become a black hole of despair, especially for someone locked up with murderers because they do not have the money to pay a fine for a minor offense,” said Robin Mahfood, President/CEO of Food For The Poor. “Every year, we look forward to paying the fines of nonviolent offenders for Christmas. We are reminded in the Holy Scriptures to be merciful. We are truly humbled by the privilege of providing that mercy as a gift of a second chance.” From the prisons in Cap-Haitien, Fort-Liberté, Grande Rivière, Hinche, and Port-de-Paix, Haiti, a total of 195 people were liberated, including 18-year-old Malaica.
The young woman who works as a domestic worker is the mother of a 7-month-old baby. With money extremely tight, Malaica needed to buy food for her child and borrowed 15 Haitian Gordes (22 cents USD) from a friend. When Malaica could not repay the loan, that friend and a group of young women confronted her at her home demanding repayment. Malaica was arrested and imprisoned because she didn’t have the money to repay her loan or the jail fine. Malaica said she’s extremely thankful to Fr. Jean Fils Chery who insisted on her release, because she didn’t have anyone to care for her baby. Food For The Poor paid her fine and also provided her with a 100-pound bag of rice and other items.
“It’s hard to comprehend anyone going to jail, let alone to prison with hard-core inmates, over 22 cents. The Food For The Poor-Haiti staff hears stories like Malaica’s all the time. The majority of the people in the prisons are there because of the theft of an animal for food or for things of little value. Sadly, if that person cannot come up with the money, a night’s stay in jail can quickly turn into months or even years,” said Mahfood.
Also, for the second time in Food For The Poor’s 18-year history of its Prison Ministry Program, Haiti has allowed nonviolent offenders locked up in the Prison Civile de Port-au-Prince to have their fines paid by the charity. Sixty-eight men have been liberated from the country’s national prison.
The Food For The Poor Prison Ministry Program is helping to transform lives. Since the program’s inception in 1998, the charity has assisted in freeing, training and reintroducing nonviolent prisoners back into their communities as productive citizens.
In Honduras, 18 nonviolent offenders were released from their prisons. Eight men from the Privados de Libertad Para Conmuta Penitenciaria and 10 men from the Pastoral Penitenciaria in San Pedro Sula, which included 30-year-old Orvin.
Four years ago, Orvin had moved from the rural tropical rainforest of Mosquitia to the city of San Pedro Sula in search of work to provide for his wife, children and his mother. It didn’t take long for Orvin to realize there wasn’t much opportunity for an unskilled rural laborer in the city. He said he became depressed, started to drink and got caught up with the wrong crowd.
He was picked up by the police for a minor violation and spent five months in the Pastoral Penitenciaria because he did not have the money to pay his jail fine. But in Orvin’s case, his sentencing turned out to be an unexpected blessing.
“It’s very hard to survive in a place like this, but while here, I learned how to make sandals. Now I have something to do once I get my freedom,” Orvin said. “I am thankful for this program, because it has allowed me to return to my family.”
Orvin, along with the rest of the men released, were provided with clothing, toiletries, food and a copy of the Holy Bible.
In Jamaica, 21 nonviolent prisoners were released from their cells. Four women were freed from the Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, which is the only prison for women on the island, four men from Richmond Park, one man from Tamarind Farm, two men from Tower Street and 10 men from the St. Catherine Adult Correctional Centre.
That group of 10 men included a 63-year-old bus driver, who was placed behind bars on Dec. 1, 2016, for not wearing the required bus uniform. The man had two options for the offense, pay a fine of JA$32,000 ($246.15 USD) or spend 60 days in prison. Since he could not afford the fine, he opted to be jailed.
“I have a daughter attending university, and college expenses are quite costly, but I want to give her a better life. This is why I didn’t have the funds to pay the fine,” said the newly released man. “It has been hard in prison, especially when you think about not having the freedom you are used to. Being on lock down is not easy.”
When the man found out that Food For The Poor had paid his outstanding fine for his early release, he went on to say, “I feel good! I didn’t have it to pay and to know that people who don’t know me would just do this for me, it makes me feel really good inside. Hearty thanks to Food For The Poor.”
Immediately upon release from the different prisons, the former inmates were escorted from their cells to a room and later to that prison’s chapel where they were each greeted by Food For The Poor staff who provided them with food, supplies and encouragement.
Eleven men were freed from Guyana’s notorious prisons in Georgetown and New Amsterdam. The men were taken to the Food For The Poor-Guyana office where they were treated with a simple lunch and a copy of the Holy Bible and other books. They also received travel money and hampers filled with food and personal care items.
Each man was given the opportunity to express his gratitude for a second chance at freedom in a phone call from Georgetown, Guyana, to Mr. Mahfood in Coconut Creek, Fla. Sayad, 37, who was sentenced to three months for stealing, was beside himself with gratitude during the call. “I am very happy to be out of prison to be with my wife and family. I am very thankful to you for paying this fine for me. I am really, really thankful,” said Sayad.
To support Food For The Poor’s Prison Ministry Program, checks payable to Food For The Poor can be mailed to 6401 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek, Fla. 33073. Please include reference number “SC# 74122” to ensure your donation is correctly routed, or make an online donation at www.FoodForThePoor.org/prisoners
“Words do not convey the gratitude we have for our loving donors and staff who have not lost faith on a segment of people who are often forgotten or written off as a lost cause. Thank you,” said Mahfood.
Food For The Poor, one of the largest international relief and development organizations in the nation, does much more than feed millions of the hungry poor primarily in 17 countries of the Caribbean and Latin America. This interdenominational Christian ministry provides emergency relief assistance, clean water, medicines, educational materials, homes, support for orphans and the aged, skills training and micro-enterprise development assistance, with more than 95 percent of all donations going directly to programs that help the poor. For more information, please visit www.FoodForThePoor.org.