The U.S. government plans to build two prisons in Haiti's countryside in an effort to stem severe overcrowding, disease and violence in the poor Caribbean nation's prison system, a U.S. official said Friday.

Carl Siebentritt, director of the Narcotics Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy, wrote in an email to The Associated Press that a prison will be built in each of the coastal towns of Petit Goave and Cabaret.

"Prisons are so overcrowded that detainees are held in temporary holding cells at police stations," Siebentritt wrote. "By constructing new prisons that are consistent with international human rights standards, the (U.S. State) Department seeks to alleviate this overcrowding and to reduce the spread of disease and violence."

The department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs estimates that the project will cost between $5 million and $10 million, public records say.

The penitentiary planned for Cabaret, a town 19 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Haiti's capital, will hold women and help reduce crowding at a women's prison in the Port-au-Prince area. It will have 200 beds. It will also include a textile operation that will employ up to 15 women and a vocational training program.

The prison planned for Petit Goave, a town 43 miles (70 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince, will have 150 beds and replace one that was destroyed in 2004 following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Contract bids are due in early March, Siebentritt said.

The project is part of a larger effort by foreign governments and aid groups to improve conditions in Haiti's prisons, which have been described as some of the world's worst.

The prisons are notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary, and inmates often take turns sleeping at night because of lack of space.

The crowded facilities stem in large part because of a dysfunctional justice system in whcih the majority of prisoners haven't seen a judge or been convicted of a crime. Inadequate record-keeping has made it difficult to confirm the number of inmates held in prolonged detention, but the State Department estimates the number is between 2,000 and 3,000.

Dr. John May, a South Florida physician who co-founded a nonprofit that seeks to improve health conditions in prisons worldwide, said he made a medical trip last fall to the police station in Petit Goave, where 128 inmates were locked up in a holding cell. The single room didn't have beds or running water, and the prisoners had scabies or suffered from malnutrition, mental illness and high blood pressure, he said.

"I'm very grateful some assistance is being delivered to the prison program," May said. "Prisoners are often forgotten."