MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota nurse who volunteered alongside an American aid worker currently imprisoned in Haiti is now concerned for the safety of all volunteers who work in the earthquake ravaged country.
Jacqueline James, a Regions Hospital ER nurse, first went to Haiti last February.
“I always tell people I went to Haiti as a volunteer and I came home an activist, because what I saw there changed me, changed my life,” said James.
Her most recent trip to Haiti may have been the most life altering trip of all. Her mission came to an abrupt end a week and a half ago when of the volunteers she worked with, Paul Waggoner, was arrested on kidnapping charges, charges his fellow volunteers say are false.
James went to Haiti with a group Waggoner co-founded, called Materials Management Relief Core (MMRC) Global.
The organization helps transport supplies and medical teams. James says Waggoner was known as “Little Paul” to the Haitian people, and his most recent mission was setting up cholera treatment centers on the La Gonave island.
James says the team got a call that Waggoner was arrested on kidnapping charges, stemming from incident last February at a Port au Prince hospital.
“A really ill child was brought in that night and the child passed away,” said James. “There was some confusion I think with the father, the baby’s eyes wouldn’t close after death which is not uncommon, and even though the doctor pronounced the child dead and filled out a death certificate, the father couldn’t accept the child had died.”
James says the bizarre details that emerged question whether the child had been kidnapped or died, and somehow the Haitian government believes Waggoner is to blame.
She’s now asking all volunteers to consider whether it is safe to return to Haiti, even suggesting volunteers consider boycotting their service.
“The one thing we can do is withhold our services and it is very painful to think about doing that. I can think in my mind of little children’s faces and mothers whose children I have helped overcome cholera, and those are the people who will be denied our services, it is very painful to think about this, but we have to make a point to the Haitian government this is not acceptable,” said James.
Wagonner has ties to Massachusetts and Florida, but thousands of volunteers from around the world are now fighting for his freedom. From the “Free LP” Facebook page, to petitions circulating several countries, people are declaring his innocence. Volunteers are also urging their representatives in Washington to take action, and are working with the US and Haitian embassies.
James isn’t sure if her most recent trip to Haiti will be her last.
“I think we have no choice but to not go,” said James. “As long as Paul is in the Penitentiary, none of us are really safe, until this situation is resolved I think we would be foolish to put ourselves in that position.”
James says Wagonner’s arrest sets a dangerous precedent for all volunteers. She says she worries now about the people suffering in Haiti, when volunteers must put their own lives first.
“There are literally tens of thousands of volunteers in Haiti and if we all said, we are not going to do it until this is resolved we will facilitate some change.”
This week MMRC released a letter from Waggoner in prison.
“I am broken and can’t understand why this is happening to me. I have done nothing wrong. Why can’t anybody help me and get me out of here? I’m scared I’ll never be released. I have been moved and can no longer feel the sun on my skin. It is so dark and I am so afraid.”
The organization also added its own plea.
“The conditions in Haiti’s National Penitentiary are horrific. As many as 70 inmates are crowded into 20-by-20 foot cells without plumbing in lockdown conditions. Diseases, like tuberculosis and AIDS, are rife in the prison. Despite being incarcerated at the National Penitentiary since December 16, 2010, the US Embassy made its first visit to the prison December 22, 2010. It has been confirmed that Embassy staff is working with the US Diplomatic Security Service as a liaison with the Haitian National Police.
“MMRC is pleading for the US Embassy to take a stronger stance in securing Waggoner’s immediate release. Americans are urged to contact US government officials to demand Waggoner’s freedom; contact information may be found at this website. People may also call Overseas Citizens Services (202-647-5225).”
WCCO-TV’s Lindsey Seavert Reports