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By Shushan Harutyunyan

“Life is different on this side of the walls and barbed wire. We live differently, there are different rules and all this causes psychological pressure,” said 40-year old Seyran and grew silent, wishing to limit his description of everyday life to these few words.

As a matter of fact, it was terribly difficult to get an access this institution, but while interviewing him I thought that it was even tough for this former public official and candidate of sciences to speak of his current life.

Seyran is serving a five-and-a-half year prison sentence and all his days at the Convicts’ Hospital are spent staring down the road to the home where his family is waiting for him. His mother is gravely ill and he recently lost a child, and the stress exacerbated a skin disorder he suffers from.

Seyran is one of the 255 convicts serving sentences at the Convicts’ Hospital, an institution under the Ministry of Justice. Sixteen of the “residents” are HIV-positive, 40 of them suffer from tuberculosis, the others – ranging in age from 18 to 87 years old – have psychiatric disorders or other serious conditions.

The other convicts are in this institution only temporarily. They walk freely here within certain permitted hours during the day. The convicts can use the money they receive for work to buy cigarettes, sweets, juice and other items from a small kiosk located in the yard.

There are various cross-stones place all along the path to the cafeteria and the convicts have set up a small chapel on the adjacent wall. This scene – with people standing near the wall or squatting next to it, dressed in dark colors and fingering worry beads – is not nearly as strange as the cabinet in the doctors’ room of the hospital.
This cabinet contains metal and other heavy items that had been surgically removed from the bodies of the convicts, and each item has a note on it which bore the name of the person it had been taken from.

Judging by the contents of the cabinet, the items most frequently swallowed by convicts were nails and spoons. There were also thermometers, pens, knives, pieces of iron and other items, all of which had been extracted from their bodies.

Artur, one of the convicts, can be regarded is a “hero” according to doctor Vardanyan. He took out 15 spoons and a piece of iron tubing from Artur’s body.

“You break off the head of the spoon, smooth it out and push it in,” he says, demonstrating in order to better explain to me the common technique of achieving a particular goal in prison, such as moving to a convicts hospital, were conditions are comparably better.

“I’m well aware of the level of danger associated with each item swallowed. I really did want to hurt myself, since I can’t imagine myself in that outside world. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do there. I feel better here”, he says.
Arsen Afrikyan, the head of the Convicts’ Prison, speaks about their achievements that include an improved system, renovated rooms, better drug supply and the construction of a new building underway. With reference to his words certain problems still remain.

The deputy head of the detention center, Aram Khachatryan, explains that enormous changes had occurred since 2004, when patients with AIDS would extract their own blood in syringes and threaten the staff with it, even running after them sometimes.

“We have incidents now as well, but they are of a different kind. For example, we had an escape attempt in late August, when a 31-year old convict jumped from a window on the fourth floor where the tuberculosis patients stay. He jumped on to the guards’ tower, where we have armed personnel and then on to the yard of the printing house next door, from where he ran away. Naturally, we’d caught him by the next day.” Khachatryan says.

The roles of psychologists, lawyers and social workers are critically important here. Haik Tovmasyan, a social worker, says that he tries to support convicts in getting disabled status and allowances and finding employment. He notes that 30-40% of the convicts expressed the desire to work, but that employment opportunities are limited.

“The wives, mothers and sisters of these people usually come to visit them. Sometimes only male relatives come to visit because the convicts don’t want their women to set foot in this place,” says Haik Tovmasyan, adding that there were convicts whom nobody visited because they “lived here” – they were released from prison, committed another crime and returned, becoming the “big shots” of the place.

Legal expert Narine Mikoyan says that the convicts who came to the hospital are well aware of their rights even in the detention center and that they all wants to have their sentences mitigated by appealing to the European Court. According to her, they would often get her involved in cases where they felt that they had certain rights.

“We had two marriages this year and one divorce was registered,” said Narine, citing another social indicator.
At the Convicts’ Hospital, it is often difficult to calm those convicts who had been rejected for early release by the committee.

“We have a convict with AIDS who had been rejected by the independent committee. He sewed his lips together and declared a hunger strike. Imagine, I was sitting talking to him as the blood flowed – I understood that I was not in contact with him physically, but a drop of his blood could fly into my eye. It is especially difficult to calm them down early on,” Mikoyan says.

She interprets the case from two different angles. “On one hand, it’s a case of national security and there is great risk in considering whether someone who has been convicted 8 times and released early twice may finally have been rehabilitated. On the other hand, there are some people who have definitely changed and are now trustworthy, you can feel it.”

Seyran, who has served out 1 year and 10 months of his sentence, had already appeared before the committee twice and turned down. “I still hope I will get free soon. Hope is the only thing to do behind the bars” he says.

It should be noted that since the beginning of 2009 to this day, 82 cases of conviction have been reviewed at the Convicts Hospital for possible early release, but 75 of them have been presented to the independent committee. The committee has approved the release of 20 convicts, who have all then been set free by the court.

The article has been published in Hetq.am (the online publication of Association of Investigative Journalists of Armenia)