17 year-old Razmik is one of the nine minors serving time at the Abovyan Penitentiary in Armenia.
Razmik was the only one willing to talk to me when I visited the prison, but only if I agreed not to photograph his face.
Born in the town of Artashat, Razmik was placed in an orphanage at the age of nine. As way of an explanation, Razmik told me he would always run away from home and was a handful for his mother. He’s an only child and grew up in a one parent home.
Two years ago Razmik was transferred to the Vardashen Special Needs School where he attended classes for six months. He was then sentenced to three years imprisonment for assaulting a stranger in the street.
“That guy approached me and started to make certain proposals. I blew my top and beat him. I guess you know what I’m talking about. He was a homosexual. He went and filed a complaint with the police,” Razmik explains.
Razmik wasn’t included in the last state-wide amnesty. He already spent 18 months in prison and is looking at another 18 months.
Regarding prison life, Razmik says he spends a lot of time at the gym and wants to pursue football when released. He says he’d like to live with his mother and knows that finding work will be tough. But he’s ready to type any work that comes along, even in construction.
Razmik notes that while people on the outside, in mainstream society, avoid dealing with former inmates, it’s quite easy for anyone to suddenly wind up behind bars.
The young man also attends engraving classes organized by the Trtou NGO.
After my conversation with Razmik, another of the boys wished to talk. I spoke to Davit (not his real name-Z.M.) in the aquarium room which was designed by them. He avoided talking about his family and why he ended up in prison. All he said was that he was born in Yerevan and changed three schools due to arguments and a problem with ‘fitting in’. Davit said he always wanted to be a computer programmer, but a year and a half after graduating he would up in jail.
While at Abovyan Penitentiary, Davit has completed a workshop on radio-psychics and is now taking extension courses in economics at a Yerevan university. He’s the only inmate at Abovyan taking college classes.
“There are many people assisting me, from the prison administration to university instructors. My family brings me books and the instructors visit the prison so that I can take exams. Not to boast, but I’m getting good marks,” says Davit, now into his third year of college.
Davit is scheduled for release in three months and says he’ll continue with his college education. As to what he’ll take with him from his time in prison Davit says, “I’ve learnt a lot. I attended pretty much all the groups. And I’ve learnt self-control.” Regarding advice for his contemporaries, Davit simply said, “The only thing I can tell them is to take ten minutes and think about their future before doing anything.”According to changes introduced by Armenia’s Ministry of Justice, juveniles could apply to remain at Abovyan Penitentiary until the age of 21. Now, there are some inmates over 18 at Abovyan. In the past, any inmate turning 18 was sent to prisons holding adults.
Such reforms, while noteworthy for Armenia, still do not equate with Europe when it comes to treating juvenile offenders. Germany, for example, has special correctional facilities of juvenile offenders aged 18 to 21 designed to get “restore” them as productive members of society. In a number of European countries (Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Bosnia-Herzegovina) sentences handed out to offenders in this age bracket are treated less severely than adults and are not sentenced to the full extent of the law.
Nouneh Mikayelyan has been working in the correctional system in Armenia since 1993. An attorney by profession, she now heads the social-psychological and legal division at Abovyan Penitentiary.She told me that Abovyan will be getting a new psychologist to serve the needs of all the facility’s 200 inmates, including the minors and women.
“It would be ideal if we could have more psychologists on staff, but we are doing the best we can with the resources available to get inmates prepared for re-entry into civilian life,” Mikayelyan said.
Regarding juvenile inmates, Mikayelyan claimed they all had psychological problems, many from troubled homes, and that it was important to work on a one-to-one basis with them.
“The correctional facility cannot correct all these issues on its own. Also playing a role is the school, family and television. Oftentimes, juvenile offenders are trying to copy the ways of those ‘good guys’ portrayed on television leading comfortable lives via nefarious means,” Mikayelyan noted.
Photos: Saro Baghdasaryan