One of the juvenile detainees of Abovyan penitentiary really enjoys taking English classes. When asked why he did not study English before, he says he has not attended school in the past. Another young detainee had first refused to attend any of the courses at the penitentiary, but after taking a few classes, he has decided to become a programmer. A third one has chosen the history teacher as a role model, he wants to become a historian.
There are no juvenile inmates at Abovyan penitentiary, but eight detainees that are waiting for the court decisions. As of September 2019, juvenile detainees can be involved in state general education programs. One of them is at grade 8, three others at grade 9 and one more is an eleven grader. In the past, the penitentiaries offered courses in applied decorative arts, English, computer skills as well as Armenian and Math before the general education program had been introduced.
“It would be a stretch to say that the juvenile detainee’s study well here, but we have one such detainee who enjoys English. He never went to school before, he lived at a boarding school though. We observe not only his progress in English, but the overall personal development is apparent”, Nune Miqaelyan, head of the social-psychological unit of Abovyan penitentiary says.
She continues to note that the number of juvenile inmates at the institutions has decreased since 2014 due to the changes in the state policy. Juveniles are sentenced to the types of punishment that can be served while in freedom. This includes public works such as cleaning snow, gardening, etc.
The causes of inmate sentences mostly include theft, burglary, killing with use of knives/stabbing. Fraud and other similar crimes are not typical for the juveniles.
What steps can be taken so as the minors do not want to commit crimes, for them not to get to penitentiary institutions? Miqaelyan believes that introducing a practical course on making money and managing it well at schools is an important first step; “Toward the school completion the adolescents should realize that they need to earn money, otherwise they are looking for easy ways to get that money. They should earn the money to value its worth.
”She also mentions that female inmates are taking hairdressing classes and also work at the penitentiary. “We tell them to have money on their accounts. Here, they do not take care of several costs, but once out of here, they will face such problems as paying for water, gas, utilities, they will need to earn their daily bread.”
What are the relations of juveniles at penitentiaries with their families like? The answer to this question is really sad. “Oftentimes none of the family members visits them. We call them, beg them to visit and we hear in response that their social situation is such that they cannot bring anything to the children. We explain to them that they do not need anything other than their attention so as not to feel abandoned. There have been cases when the family members change telephone numbers for us not to reach them. In other cases, we realize that it is much better to stay away from that kind of family. We contacted the father of one of the juveniles, but he did not want to visit his child. We thought it better because if the child were to be under the influence of such a person, he would definitely commit another crime.’
In case of theft the underlying problem is mostly a social one, but in case of stabbings we are facing the reality of not valuing someone else’s life. Miqaelyan says prevention of such cases is possible if children are taught self-restrain earlier on. “The juveniles try to shape a criminal culture here. The criminal TV series like Vorogayt and others form a type of criminal mentality already at school. It is not that they see and learn such things here, they bring it with them. However, there is less of it now.”
The first feeling that juveniles experience at the penitentiary is that of fear, abandonment, alarm as observed by psychologist Shushan Matevosyan, chief specialist at the Abovyan penitentiary social-psychological and legal unit. “Social situation in the family, regular violence, which is not necessarily physical violence, could be also psychological violence, are the main causes for juveniles’ appeareance in penitentiary institutions”, she observes.
The psychologist notes that the children here come from families where the parents are divorced, usually the mother works a number of jobs to take care of different needs and has no time to supervise the child. “As a rule, the kids find themselves in an unfavourable circle, a gang that forces them to do certain things, the gains of which are divided between this gang members.” Shushan Matevosyan’s experience of many years shows that stabbing usually is a result of family violence.”
What is done at penitentiary institutions to keep the juveniles away from criminal life? According to the psychologist, they try to give them education opportunities and ensure employment. “Otherwise, the reality of their life, the environment is really degrading. I cannot say they value education. There are smart kids among them, but most of them are dropouts. It is here that they should close that gap, but it is difficult to make them see education as a value. We do our best to coax them, we use games and interaction, we tell them one way or another there is nothing better to do at prison, so studying will help them pass the time. They behave as any student. They have favourite teachers, have classes they just want to skip.”
It is important for the staff here to make sure the kids do not see their future within the criminal life. The psychologist notes that a lot of things have changed at the penitentiary and more changes will come. Soon enough the inmates will have a chance to work and earn an income here to meet their basic needs. “Art Lunch or a similar food providing contactor will serve their meals and we are concerned that the kids might think it is better at the prison than outside and will keep coming back.”
What needs to be done to prevent their return to prison? The psychologist believes that a stable family and a role in the society at its useful member are essential. “Oftentimes, the family instils a kind of ungrounded daring to the kids, for doing anything they want and giving them support. But they are unable to be next to the children all the time. We do not have even a singles case where the juveniles have come from a stable social environment. They say, no one is guaranteed from appearing here. I can deny that claim full heartedly since I have not seen anyone from a good family here.”
Kamo Arakelyan, PHD in history, an NGO representative believes that juvenile detainees need education to gain the knowledge they need to survive once out of prison. “One of the kids told me once that she wants to study like me and become a historian. I really felt proud.” Arakelyan thinks that the absence of cultural events is a big gap at penitentiaries. “Kids have to be in active contact with culture.”
Artashes Makaryan, IT teacher, says that at first the juveniles did not want to attend classes, but once they are made to sit in one or two classes, they start enjoying the process. “I have a student who denied any attempt to get him to class. I worked with him one on one for some time and now he is not only excited about the class itself, he wants to become a programmer. Another student is very smart, but he has not used his brains and ended up here. He may ask questions that make me think hard before answering. And that is just great Today I had a first class with one of them, a real brainy boy. He writes really fast but cannot read. Since he has always used the Latin keyboard, he does not know the Armenian letters. I was showing him the letters today, he is a very fast learner. It’s a waste that a kid like that has not been properly educated. Any kid needs a little coaxing to start learning”, he says.
Artashes believes lack of education turns this world into a worse place. “Domestic violence, all kinds of crimes are a result of bad education. I have not seen violence, beating in a family where people are educated.” He works both with adult and juvenile inmates and he observes some distinct differences in case of younger inmates. “The juveniles are more inclined to be affected by the criminal culture, they perceive it more deeply, they believe there is only one truth and their mentality is thus affected.”
To my question if it is possible to fully overcome the criminal culture, Makaryan smiles. “Once during the class, I saw that one of the students was drawing the famous tattoo on his hand, the “panj”. I stopped the class and started talking to him. I told him he should leave every bad thing behind when he is out of here, he should start afresh. I said he did not need that tattoo to remind him all the time about this phase in his life. In my conversations with them I tell them about the roots of criminal culture, about how and why it spread, who created it. They feel really surprised and from that moment on their attitude changes. If some time ago they thought it to be a noble concept to uphold, they suddenly face someone who explains its false value and it makes them think.”
Author: Karmen Martirosyan