The following is an interview I had with Gayaneh Hovakimyan, a sociologist who heads a center under the aegis of Armenia’s Ministry of Justice designed to get criminal offenders back on their feet and reintegrated into society.
Operating under the name of “Rehabilitative Center for Criminal Offenders, the organization has a staff of thirteen educators, psychologist, social workers and attorney that work with offenders and their families to help them recognize and overcome a myriad of problems they face on the road to recovery.
Prior to 2002, none of Armenia’s correctional facilities had psychologists or social workers on staff. Hovakimyan says that she participated in the creation of social and psychological recovery units in Armenia’s prisons that give convicts a second chance in society.
Gayaneh, can you tell us more about these units and the results registered over the past ten years. What correctional facilities have such units?
That’s a very complicated question. I believe in the idea that a person can change. But as to the degree to which institutions can resolve this issue, I don’t see ten years as a sufficient timespan to make evaluations. I believe it’s been a trial and error period with successes and failures.
This issue cannot be regarded as something separate from the overall society. A correctional facility is the same society that exists but in a more concentrated form. Naturally, reforms must be paralleled with changes in mentality directed to those on the other side of prison bars. The fact remains that social institutions change very slowly.
There are only eleven psychologists working in the country’s twelve correctional facilities. Is that enough to carry out productive work aimed at the 5,000 people now serving time in them?
Yes, the number of psychologists is small. It isn’t logical to expect these professionals to conduct quality one-to-one work.
Since I’ve trodden the same path, I can see the inadequacies and mistakes that once existed. There were objective reasons for those shortcomings.
What mistakes would you single out?
Our approach had been to retrain workers in the system and then appoint them as psychologist in the correctional facilities. But experience has shown that there are some jobs for which retraining doesn’t produce desirable results.
We needed new personnel who had a real background as psychologist and social workers. They shouldn’t have any administrative functions to carry out. Some of the services should be in-house and others introduced from without.
For example, I attended a conference once where colleagues from Cyprus related how they psychologist are brought in to the prisons to organize art appreciation evenings for those serving life sentences.
Here in Armenia, lifers are locked up in their cells for 23 hours per day. They don’t attend any events nor do they get trade skills. As a professional, do you believe rehabilitative work can be achieved given such conditions?
You raise a valid problem. If the government sets as a standard for correcting an individual his/her working or attending an event, then it must provide the possibility for that work or event.
Just how much of this does the system provide to then make demands of convicts? That’s to say, what is the system proposing? Correcting one’s behavior isn’t a one-way process; it’s one of mutual influence.
I believe the entire internal rules and regulations and evaluations criteria of the corrections department must be reviewed. Today, all the codes of the criminal justice system are changing. I believe this is the period when we must take a new approach when studying the idea of punishment; how it’s implemented and its objectives.
In Brazilian prisons, convicts are instructed to read books and then to write compositions on the subject matter. The more books they read, the more their sentence is reduced. Can similar programs be introduced in Armenia given that the costs are minimal?
They have made reading books a criterion. The system has proposed this. Without violating the norms of safety and other issues, interesting solutions can be achieved. This is the needed approach.
If there are good proposals, we are ready to study them. A few months ago we read the letter of lifer Mher Yenkoyan to the press in which he proposed organized dance evenings for fathers in prison with their daughters. It’s a very attractive idea. Those dances can have a shocking effect for the fathers and daughters. They might seem like small steps, but we have to start somewhere.
In your opinion, is it a priority for the government to return healthy convicts, mentally, spiritually and physically, back to society?
Here, the question arises as to who is the government? We are; right?
I have the decision makers in mind.
If we can justify that a problem exists, I am sure that the decision makers will make the right choices.
Of course, much depends on the political will of the state. Nevertheless, those individuals who administer these systems are willing to take this approach.
Without underestimating anyone, I can say that the motivation and desire I see today by the minister of justice and head of the corrections department leads me to believe they will take specific steps in the right direction.
Gayaneh, today you run the first state rehabilitative center in Armenia. What projects have you launched to date?
We provide psychological and legal assistance. In collaboration with Project Harmony, this year we are carrying out a program for 25 children of convicts. They participate in cultural events. We want to expand their numbers and make it an annual project.
We added glass making classes to the pottery classes now underway at the Abovyan Correctional Facility. We want to set up similar groups at the Kosh Facility. Our long-term project is to create art rooms in all the correctional facilities and to organize classes on motherhood for female convicts.
The second direction we are taking is to work with convicts once they’ve been released. We’re waiting for the participation of the probation agency.
Currently, we are also working with juvenile convicts. We are planning to work more closely in the community and to foster the potential that exists. Thus, we want to launch community centers.
One of our future events that I’d like to single out is the exhibition that will take place on December 10 at the Armavir Correctional Facility on the occasion of International Human Rights Day.
The exhibition will display handicrafts made by convicts and artists on the outside, in an attempts to weaken the borders separating prisons from the public.
Do you have the resources needed to make these projects work?
We face many problems, but despite the challenges we can achieve qualitative changes if there are people dedicated to doing so.
And there are many such people out there. If we expand this group of dedicated people, and not the army of the annoyed, one day we will see that all of us are dedicated.
We must not discriminate between individuals. If we start to do so, by accusing some and neglecting others, the number of the marginalized will grow. This only places restrictions on their energies.
We must not restrict the potential of various social groupings so that later on we will have good painters, potters and chiefs.
Oftentimes, when society erects barriers against certain groups it only increases negativity and evil.