Armenia’s prison system has been rocked by an outbreak of protests, as inmates engage in extreme acts such as self-mutilation in an attempt to draw attention to poor conditions.
Some prisoners have sewn up their mouths, and one man cut off a finger, in what human rights activists say is a desperate response to a system that denies convicts basic rights and conditions.
Avetik Iskhanyan, head of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, says that while there are no statistics for the number of prisoners harming themselves, it is a common occurrence.
“I myself witnessed one prisoner nailing his foot to the floor in the Goris prison, and in both Nubarashen and Goris, I have seen prisoners who have sewn up their eyes and mouths,” Ishkhanyan told IWPR. “If we hadn’t visited these prisons, we would never have found out.”
Ishkhanyan said convicts who engaged in such acts were acting out of desperation.
“Effectively, their protests go unanswered. They make appeals to civil society organisations, which don’t have a lot of influence, and then the start self-harming,” he said.
Ex-convicts are often reluctant to talk about the conditions they were held in. IWPR spoke to Vardges Gaspari, a political analyst arrested and jailed after the 2008 presidential election.
He said he experienced the kind of conditions that drove prisoners to harm themselves or go on hunger strike.
“I spent six months in a cell where conditions were intolerable. I saw sewage constantly seeping into the cell…. The solitary confinement cell was full of rats. There were 18 people living in a cell designed for eight,” he said.
IWPR also interviewed Benyamin Hovakimyan, a regular visitor to the Nubarashen prison in the capital Yerevan, where he brings food to his son Stepan every week because the meals provided are of poor standard. Stepan is serving three years for theft.
“I’m not surprised if someone chops off his finger and sends it to the authorities, or someone sews up his mouth,” Hovakimyan said. “How many times have we heard of suicides? Yet not a single case has been investigated properly.”
Ishkhanyan’s organisation is one of several that has sought to publicise problems ranging from squalid living conditions and overcrowding to bad food, substandard healthcare and lack of exercise.
According to Arman Danielyan, head of the Institute for Civil Society, “People in prisons try to protest about their problems via legal channels, but their complaints don’t go anywhere.”
Another problem facing convicts, human rights activists say, is intimidation by other prisoners higher up the food chain. Ishkhanyan speaks of “a hierarchical, corrupt system among inmates that prevents lawful complaints from reaching their destinations”.
Gaspari said organised crimes bosses in the prison system were effectively in charge, extorting money from other inmates and enjoying privileged lives.
“Although it isn’t discussed openly, the inhumane relationships among prisoners is another reason why people take extreme steps,” he said. “I know of a case where someone went on hunger strike just to be transferred elsewhere, as he was isolated and under pressure.”
In other former Soviet states like Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, outbreaks of similar self-harming incidents have been identified as the work of organised criminals, staging collective action to pressure the authorities. Karine Kalantaryan, spokeswoman for Armenia’s justice ministry, denied this was what was happening in the prisons.
“Self-harming is just a way of making a protest,” she said. “Such things are quite common in Armenia as well as in developed countries.”
Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan, who is responsible for the country’s penal system and its nearly 5,000 inmates, described the phenomenon of prisoners sewing up their mouths as “quite normal – like girls wearing earrings”, a comment that did not go down well with rights activists.
Tovmasyan said self-harming incidents were not the responsibility of the justice ministry.
“They are mostly expressing their dissatisfaction with the court verdict passed on them, or with the initial [pretrial] investigation,” he said.
The minister also disagreed with allegations that prisoners are denied access to the legal system.
“A strategic programme of legal and judicial reforms has been approved for 2012-16, and serious work is being done on the probation service. In 2012, several prison employees of various ranks faced disciplinary procedures,” he said.
Karen Andreasyan, the Armenia’s official human rights ombudsman, disagreed with the minister’s assessment, describing the epidemic of self-harming as something out of the ordinary that needed to be tackled.
Andreasyan has requested 11 million drams, about 27,000 US dollars, to fund his office to work in the prison system and to try to prevent violence, but this has been turned down by the government.
Ishkhanyan said Armenian prisons are still Soviet-era institutions designed to isolate prisoners, not rehabilitate them.
“There is no control at the moment, and the system has become completely closed off,” he said. “I agree with the minister when he says a new facility should be built, rather than repairing buildings in poor condition, but the new prison has been under construction for five or six now.”
According to Tovmasyan, “Construction of the prison at Armavir is ongoing, and it will be completed in autumn 2014.”
Rights activists warn that convicts might bring a collective action at the European Court of Human Rights, since the European convention specifically bars inhuman and degrading treatment.
Karine Ionesyan is a reporter for www.lragir.am