Life behind the locks
UNICEF helps Armenia reform juvenile justice administration
UNICEF Armenia/Onnik Krikorian
ABOVIAN, Armenia -- Twenty minutes outside of Yerevan in a sprawling complex of buildings that even accommodates llamas, pigs, peacocks, and tropical fish in an on site zoo and aquarium, its life as normal for the prisoners incarcerated in the state-run prison. Established in 1958, the buildings are of course in disrepair after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but with the support of UNICEF, conditions in the Abovian Women and Children’s Penal Colony are improving in other ways.
One of the most obvious manifestations of these improvements in the last four years has been the significant reduction in the number of juvenile prisoners. Rostom Martirosian, Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Abovian, has been working at the Colony for the past 27 years and says that he has seen both positive and negative changes. From 1980-1985, he gives as an example, there were over 300 children in detention.
“During the Soviet years, some aspects of the Colony were better,” he says, “especially regarding education for children in conflict with the law. In 1990, however, conditions began to decline, although they are now slowly starting to improve again. More importantly, though, the number of children here has been halved.”
Now there are 40 children, including 20 in pre-trial detention. Of the 57 women imprisoned in a separate wing of the colony, half have been sentenced for murder. Two of the female prisoners even gave birth inside, and their children co-inhabit what more resemble rooms in a hostel than cells. Juvenile offenders are aged between 14 and 18 years, and are all boys. Their average age is 17, and the maximum sentence is 10 years.
Recent legislative changes will also allow those convicted as teenagers to serve their complete sentence in Abovian rather than be transferred to a prison intended for adults where conditions are much worse. Most of these changes are as a result of placing the colony under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. The move away from the Ministry of Interior happened in 2001, and UNICEF made certain recommendations on juvenile justice administration to the Ministry and the Police that were accepted and incorporated into a new plan of action.
Two years later, in 2003, UNICEF implemented training for prison wardens that centered on the psychological, legal and educational aspects of dealing with a prison population consisting of minors. “The objective of the training was to build the capacity of staff working with children and women in prison to give them better skills and a more humane approach in their work,” says Naira Avetisyan, UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer.
“The 2004 training focused on the new provisions of the criminal code as well as other laws relating to women and children,” she says. “It was important that prison officers become familiar with the changes and new provisions because they’re the ones that will implement them.”
“Training was very effective in increasing our knowledge,” agrees Stepan Hakobian, a Senior Lieutenant at the Colony, “and we do apply what we have learned in working with the children. Because the Criminal Code has changed, we needed assistance in understanding what this meant in our daily work. The children also benefit because the law is now more liberal.”
In a new cycle of four day training sessions held last summer, 74 prison officers alone benefited from training organized by UNICEF.
Artur Hovannisian, Senior Specialist of the Division for Legal Reforms of the Department for Judicial Reforms at the Ministry of Justice, says that it was only natural that his Ministry turned to UNICEF for assistance as part of ongoing reform of the judicial system in Armenia.
“As part of these reforms, especially the National Plan of Action for Children 2004-2010 and the new Criminal Executive Code that came into force in 2005, these reforms and a corresponding change in attitude and improvement in the knowledge of prison workers is part of Armenia’s Council of Europe obligations,” he says.
And because of reform of the Criminal Code, which has now seen the introduction of fines and probation as well as community service, the number of juvenile detainees continues to decrease. In particular, pre-trial detention is now sought only for serious crimes committed by minors. “The most important part is the decriminalization of the prison system in Armenia,” says Hovannisian. “This colony has made good progress in that regard.”For more information: Emil Sahakyan, Communication Officer, UNICEF Armenia Tel.: (374 10) 52 35 46 E-mail: email@example.com