Interesting facts

Artak Tjagharyan, Armavir Penitentiary institutions, Life sentence, cell 601

By February 2, 2021 No Comments

Tel me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are’ is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me what you reread.”

Francois Moriak

“At least I tried..”

Randle McMurphy

 “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest..”

 Ken Kesey

I started reading at an early age. As a schoolchild, a University student, a military conscript, during my professional work I have experienced the evolution of every avid reader. When I was arrested in 2009 and sentenced for life in 2009, books acquired an entirely different meaning and content for me.  While reading in prison, I realized that the books I had read before and am rereading now, are perceived and understood differently. I cannot say why, but that sense was especially strong when reading Henryk Sienkiewicz’ Quo Vadis, Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s the Gulag Archipelago. 

I believe there is still a need for an in-depth research about the impact books can have on prisoners, on formation of their moral values, especially when we speak about high quality literary fiction. The convicts’ attitude toward books, the feelings while reading when in prison, should also be seriously studied, since everything is perceived differently here. In prison, one is deprived of regular contacts with the close ones, of a caring family setting, of work and professional opportunities to develop and self-express. There are no colleagues and friends, while the friendships formed in prison can be labeled as such with several reservations, depsite some exceptions.  There are no possibilities for pleasing and preferred pastime and leisure. Books and reading become the media through which the inmates try to fill in this void for vital impressions.   Television is also an authorized media in cells, but I know for a fact that watching TV can never compare to what one feels while reading. 

Whien reading, onc experiences four psychologoical processes:

  1. Perception of words
  2. Understanding of the content
  3. Assessment of the content read
  4. Impression and impact from reading on the reader’s mind and will.

The perception of a book’s content by readers is not uniform. It depends on readers’ interests, psychological emotional state, social and other circumstances. As I noted, the absence of external impressions, the monotony of life turns the book into “food for mind”, the only setting that creates impressions. It is not that more reading is happening in prisons than outside. The reading itself is different here. The cell has such an environment that makes the impact of the reading times bigger.  An intense concentration is another feature typical of reading in prisons.  This focus results in developing critical thinking since there is almost no mechanical reading in prison. The inmate becomes a kind of literary critic, a phenomenon discussed in detail by Cesare Lombroso, an acclaimed psychologist.  This makes reading in prisons psychologically unique and different. The reader does not only see whatever is included in the content, but even other things that are not deeply reflected in the book. Minutia that would have skipped a regular reader’s attention, is magnified in case of inmates so as they serve the mission of satisfying their internal spiritual needs. All this may seem paradoxical first, but I can assure you that those are real feelings that can be absorbed only be someone who is in prison or has ever been there. The intensity of these feelings is higher in case of those inmates who have spent long years in prison.  

Inmate attitude to religious literature is of special interest. My observations during years of imprisonment prompt me to believe that the holy book is almost never read despite the fact that inmates seem to be highly devoted believers. The latter is manifested through daily visits to the chapel, putting up candles, incense burning, and the mandatory presence of the Bible or the New Testament in the cell.   Even those among the so called “believers” who have a certain educational level, do not read spiritual literature. Freud speaks about this phenomenon in his work “Dostoevsky and Parricide”, where he claims, I believe accurately, that for a person that has committed a crime, redemption is an internal technical tool. It is through redemption that self-cleansing happens, that release from the psychological burden of the committed crime is possible thus paving the route for the next sin followed by genuine repenting which then becomes a kind of cycle. This uninterrupted chain, this formal piety does not call for venturing deeper into the moral dogmas and taboos and consequently results in the absence of need to read religious spiritual literature.

One of the most important tools to motivate  reading at prisons is the existence of an adequate library.

In ancient times, isolating the criminal before the trial had been the main function of the prisons. Once the sentence was issued, the prison got rid of the criminal since the sentence implied either death, or hard labor or were released.   Over centuries, the conditions at prisons had been unbearable. Men, women, children, the elderly, the sick were kept in the same cell. Sometimes the state did not undertake to feed the prisoners and the poor were forced into begging to earn their food. For this purpose, they were brought out to the city by the prison guard.

It was only in the 17th century, with the emergence of the fight against death sentence and corporal punishment that the idea for prisoner correction came into being and its introduction started. The prisons and prison libraries were meant to serve the moral reformation of the prisoners.  Throughout the later years the gradual improvement of these mechanisms took place. The first book to infiltrate the prisons, was no doubt, the Bible that initially had no competition due to prison administration stance. However, from the first quarter of the 19th century when Europe and the U.S. started upholding the value of mass literacy, other literature also found its way into prisons. This is how the prison library formation started.   

A developed library system existed in USSR prions as well. It predominantly happened in the aftermath of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party when Stalin’s cult of personality was criticized by USSR’s top leadership and following which GULAG, the huge prison network utilizing slave labor, was destroyed.  The books in Soviet prison libraries were strictly censored, but there were almost no barriers of access to them.

The book reserves in prisons of independent Armenia has undergone almost no changes. It is, to put it mildly, outdated, and no efforts to renew the libraries were made due to the social economic situation in the country. Even in case of the newly build Armavir Penitentiary, the so-called library (since it would be a stretch to call the books lined up on the two shelves in a corner of a room) features books predominantly on the advantages of communist society. Those books that are “normal” have been mostly privately donated to the library. I do believe that the Government should undertake more active steps to create contemporary libraries at penitentiaries.

I also regret to say that penitentiary libraries are outside the country’s common library space. I believe that partnerships between Armenia’s larger libraries with prison libraries could have a serious effect on their upgrade.

Prison libraries have an important humanistic role to play by helping to ease the burden the inmates have to shoulder and by contributing to their spiritual rebirth.

As a closing I would like to emphasize the relevance of the small prayer inscribed on the prison wall by Edmond Dantes, one of the most popular literary prisoners, “God, help me keep my mind.”

Everything possible should be done to that end.


P.S. I think it is also important to note that the books submitted to penitentiaries within parcels are not censored (with the exception of extremist and pornographic content, and  I do not consider forbidding those as censorship).

P.S.S.  The authorization of keeping electronic books in penitentiaries is a welcome change. I personally have been using those for years and they fill in a void of paper books, but not completely.


Author: Artak Tjagharyan, detainee, one of the winners of the journalism contest “The Right to Education in Prison” in Armenia.

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