Interesting facts

Education for All or Discrimination?

By January 22, 2021 No Comments

As a reporter, I had visitied penitentiary instituions several times, but inexplecibly prisons seemed to me  dark and bleak places. Having spent 5 years and 4 months in imprisonment, I became convinced that one can spend each and every day of being in that dark world to seek light, i.e. knowledge and education.

I was genuinely surprised to find out that courses were organized at Armavir penitentiary and one can be enrolled if so inclined. I put in a request to be admitted to the English course, but my request was rejected on the premise that there is an overdemand and I should wait. Instead, I was offered a slot in the Armenian course, which is kind of absurd given I have a University diploma of a teacher of Armenian language and literature. Naturally, this time I was the one to reject enrollment in the course.

However, I believe that educational programs are a necessity at penitentiaries, but not as pr-defined mandatory courses. The needs and requests of inmates should be considered, the quality of education should be improved with a better focus on narrow specializations and foreign languages.

Serioja Hambardzuman’s life  changed dramatically on June 24, 2016, a hot summer day when he got into a fist fight with an older friend. What started as fist and feet blows, ended with pouring of stones. He was deranged, not in his right mind, incapable of reasoning. He had had a few drinks before. “My dignity was offended, he used foul language, so I did not realize what happened to me and what I did”, this is what Serioja remembers four years after the incident.

Reference: Serioja Hambardzuman, 20 years old, has been recognized guilty by the decision of Yerevan’s Center and Norq Marash general jurisdiction court based on part 1 of Article 104 of RA Criminal Code, i.e. inflicting intentional serious damage to one’s health. The final verdict had been 9 years of imprisonment starting from June 24, 2016. S

He lived with his parents, in Nor Kesaria village of Ararat region. His father and mother were cattle breeders, spending most of the time in the mountain pastures.  Making use of the situation Serioja oftentimes did not attend school. He was in the fifth grade when the family moved to Russia permanently, his education unfinished. However, the family did not adjust well in Russia and they returned back. He started fighting a lot with his Dad and oftentimes Serioja preferred not to come home, staying outside. “I was their first born, not some unexpected child, but I became the homeless one. I spent the nights at the quay, hungry or drunk, just wasting away the days”, tells me Serioja. 

He was taking taekwondo classes and dreaming of bringing fame to the Armeian tricolor flag around the world. However, instead of the ring, Abovyan penitentiary became his permanent residence, then Armavir. It was here they offered him to continue his education. “Study what? I did not have the patience for that. My granny used to tell me-you were born in March, you are as crazy as that month”, says Serioja.

Serioja Hambardzumyan

He trained every day in the walking range of the penitentiary. Once, while training, he imagined himself being a renowned sportsman and though that being uneducated would not do. He then agreed to attend the classes. “Little by little I remembered the letters, learnt them, but it got harder after that. My teachers were always there for me, supporting me. They came all that way to the prison, how could I fail them by not studying?”, says Serioja. 

Armenian language and literature, history, Math, Russian and English, Biology and all other subjects that are taught at school were offered to this only student of the prison school. He was not that studious but he was doing his best to learn the minimum. Due to the COVID pandemic the classes shifted to online mode and it was online that he successfully passed all tests and exams and received the document certifiying compleiton of basic education.  “I will be around here for another 5 years, I need to train to keep in a good shape before I am released. I will continue my education, for sure. My favorite poems are Sayat Nova’s “love the written word” and Mikael Nalbandyan’s “Freedom”. They were included in the exam. I know that the road to freedom is thorny. I know that it is not at all about my being non free here, but I also know that the only path to freedom is through  reformation. As to the diploma, to the education behind it, those were the first steps to reformation”, says Serioja with confidence.

Learn, learn, learn

Very much like Serioja, inmate Robert Hovhannisian learnt his letters in the prison, at the age of 26. Today, he is counting the many educational certificates he has.

“One, two, three, four, five, six… I have some more at home. For courses in computers, business literacy, applied decorative arts, ceramics, English…if I studied all of this at the right time, I would not find myself in prison”, says Robert.

Reference: Robert Hovhannisian, 26 years old, has been recognized guilty by the decision, of Yerevan’s Shengavit administrative district’s general jurisdiction court (dated April 15, 2015) based on clause 1.1 of part 3 of Article 117 of RA Criminal Code, i.e. burglary with breaking into the apartment illegally. Sentenced to imprisonment for 6 year and 9 months starting from September 22, 2014, Currently an inmate at Armavir penitentiary.

Robert never tires of learning. He is looking forward to those days when he has classes. He grabs his small bag and rushes to the library earlier than the start of the classes. He reads there trying to discover something new before the teachers are there.

Robert Hovhannisian

“I never stop, I want progress, I know that extra knowledge will not kill one but illiteracy can”, this is what Robert believes. For his exemplary behavior, active participation in classes, studiousness and good attendance Robert was distinguished by the head of the penitentiary.

Robert Hovhannisian

“Years ago I had to  find others who would come to the classes to have sufficient participants, I had to convince them it was worthwhile. Nowadays, there are no slots, there is a waiting list for courses. I feel bad though that many of the inmates attend classes only to gain scores for good behavior, rather than for knowledge. If an inmate completes the entire course she gets 3 points for parole”, says Robert and then he adds with a smile that he himself got 3 points and extra 3 as an incentive. He is not sure wether with these many certificates he would be able to continue his educations once he is released, but he believes he has gained a good supply of sustainable knowledge.

Who needs certificates and why?

Former inmate A.Gh. was released this summer. He attended classes organized at the penitentiary, computer literacy and English. He has certificates but for two months already he cannot find a job. “ It would have been much better if the courses lasted 2-3 years instead of  68, 72, 53 or 20 academic hours. Say, I was sentenced to three years. For me to really master computer skills, I need 2-3 years, to study, to get a diploma, so as I can find a job outside the prison, so that I am not told that there are no jobs for former criminals”, he says. Organizing courses at penitentiary institutions and supervising them is within the jurisdiction of Ministry of Justice’s  Center of Legal Education and Implementation of Rehabilitation Programs. Ashot Hayrapetyan, head of the Center, responded to our written inquiry that there had been cases when course participants continued their education at Universities or middle vocational institutions. To illustrate, some former inmates studied at Armenia’s Academy of Fine Arts and Yerevan Terlemezyan Fine Art College since the graduates of the Decorative Applied Art course were able to make a professional choice and prepare the works needed to be submitted to the admission committee.

     

    

Former prisoners that had completed that same course can also find jobs at the businesses involved in ceramics production or set their individual businsses by making and selling jewelry, ceramic plates and mugs, art work, etc.

Teaching the secret of Armenian design patterns to Iranian kids ….

Setrak Yebrahimi is a citizen of Iranian Islamic Republic and an inmate at Armavir penitentiary. He is showing me his only certificate in Armenian and this is what the ethnic Armenian Setrak has to say, “I do not know for how long I will be sentenced but I want to attend classes. I have the time and I have the need.”

Reference: Setrak Yebrahimi, 37 years old, a detainee at Armavir Penitentiary. He is charged for smuggling drugs from Iran to Armenia and an attempt to transfer the drugs to Canada under sub-clause 2 of part 4 of Article 266 and sub-clause 1, part 4 , of  Article 38-34-267.1 of RA Criminal Code. He has been detainded since January 10, 2019.

Setrak Yeprahimi

“I am not Iranian, I am an Iranian Armenian, my Grandad is the famous Meliksaid (Melikset) in Tavriz”, he says. Before his detention, he was a real estate agent in Tavriz. He bought land, built and sold houses. “If I do not find a job after this, I will set a workshop in my garden, make ceramic plates, mugs, vases, ashtrays and sell them”, says Setrak and assures me his teacher is really happy with the items he makes. Setrak also wants to teach Iranian kids ceramics. “I will teach them our Armenian patterns, I will gather them and explain to them how to make things”, he says.  

Setrak is also willing to teach Persian language to those inmated that will be interested. “You learn a language, you are a better person. Besides, Armenians need to know Persian. Iran is a bordering country and there may be opportunities if you know the language”, Setrak speculates.

Setrak Yebrahimi

Setrak wants to attend courses in Armeian and English. He speaks Armenian  but neither reads nor writes. He says he will learn and then improve his Enblish as well. “Many Iranians, foreigners want to attend the classes, there is no harm in it, it is to our benefi. Something that is really good is that there is no separating by nationaliy, no saying you should not study because you are an Iranian or a Pakistani. There is no discrimination. If you want to attend, to learn, then you are welcome”, Setrak wraps up.

Leaning what? You better stick to your broom.

If there is no discrimination in penitentiaries between Armenian inmates and detainees attending classes and foreigners, the same is not true about those persons serving a sentence  that have been confined to the cells designated for sexual minorities, according to the unwritten laws of criminal culture.

Inmates who have dared to somehow undermine the authority of the criminals that are “in charge”, are also kept here. Fifty-year-old S.H tells me that years ago he voluntarily requested to be placed with such people. “I was unable to gamble, I had no money. I went there not to pay those “in charge””, he says. Three months ago he requested a transfer from a semi-closed prison to a semi-open one. The Penitentiary Placement Committee refused his request on the premise of no improvement in his behavior, not attending courses. “It is not that I do not want to attend, I do, for my English not to be at “I am a table” level, but my request for attending social-psychological classes was refused. They told me all my requests will be refused, and I should just stick to a broom cleaning the premises”, S.H. says. In these circumstances he does not know what his chances are to show any improvements in his behavior. M.T who found himself in a similar situation succeeded to stand up for his rights. He got enrolled in the English class but did not attend due to his transfer to the Inmate Hospital penitentiary. One of the life prisoners says he has been also enrolled in the courses because, as he says, of being “gifted”, but his course mates mostly do not communicate with him. He ignores them and this is what he says, “I make decorative items, I attend fairs and also sell thins. The rest is up to them. If they do not want to touch the tools I use, it’s their problem”

According to Nareh Hovhannisian, head of the Legal Initiatives Center NGO, the inmates voiced this issue during their monitoring visits to penitentiary institutions, but the administration denies its existence. “They claim there is no discrimination. All those willing can attend classes. However, the problem is evident but the penitentiary management does not want to accept this reality” N. Hovhannisian said. According to unwritten criminal rules people who have found themselves thus marginalized have attempted for several times to voice about the need to restore their right to education. In August they submitted a request-recommendation, they have established a separate group. “However, the discrimination continues, they stigmatize us as being different”, they say and add that they can never agree to such state of affairs.

…for the light not to fade away

According to Article 38 of the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia “each person has a right to education”. Article 29 of the main law stipulates  prohibition of discrimination, i.e. “Any discrimination on the basis of gender, race, skil color, ethnic or social origin, genetic setup, language, religion, world view, political and other views, minority affiliation, property status, birth, disability, age or other personal or social circumsances is prohibited”. The RA Criminal Procedure Code also included very nice formulations derived from human rights. More specifically, the convicts are entitled to good attitude, to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, political or other views”. Humanism as a principle is encouraged. All inmates are equal before the law. According to the same Code “the administration of the corrective institution undertakes measures to organize the basic, distant higher and post-University education of the inmates as well as the preliminary vocational education in the corrective institution itself. The vocational education should be such that will allow to either maintain or improve the inmates’ ability to earn their living after their release from prison”.

In terms of legislative requirements, there are great opportunities for educational programs at penitentiaries. They allow inmates to self-develop intellectually, to change their world view, i.e. to accomplish things they were unable to do due to different reasons. However, all the good aspects fade in contrast to discriminatory practices toward the “others” who have the same right and willingness to learn. Those responsible for education in prisons should take all necessary steps to ensure the light of education is accessible by all in the darkness the inmates face.  Even when one prisoner is left behind, in darkness, the overall light is much dimer…

P.S. All inmates and detainees referred to in the article have agreed to use of their personal information and phots. Part of photos were provided by the Penitentiary Service Department of RA Ministry of Justice.

 

Armenak /Armen/ Davtyan

Reporter, former inmate  

Paroled as of September 04, 2020

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