Armenia: Women Do Time in “Model Prison”

Armenia: Women Do Time in “Model Prison”

Almost half the inmates of the country’s only women’s prison are serving
sentences for murder.

By Karine Ter-Saakian in Abovian (CRS No. 222, 11-Mar-04)

Just outside Yerevan, there is a small zoo whose inmates include a llama, a
peacock and a couple of pythons. What’s unusual about it is that it’s part
of a woman’s prison, the only one in Armenia.

The authorities claim the Abovian camp is a model prison and that its 70
inmates have some of the best conditions in the former Soviet Union. Human
rights activists agree that things are a lot better than they used to be,
but say much more needs to be done for conditions to meet international

An IWPR contributor who visited the prison camp last week found it a strange
place, with a large aquarium as well as a zoo, and an area where pigs and
rabbits are raised for food.

But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the prison is that nearly half
the women are in for murder rather than the more usual lesser crimes.

Part of the explanation may be that women are very rarely imprisoned in
Armenia, and the country’s new criminal code stipulates that they should not
serve more than 15 years. But those convicted of grave crimes such as murder
are not eligible for early release under amnesty.

Voski is a 78-year-old woman serving a sentence for murder. “I was born in
Azerbaijan and became a refugee. My husband used to abuse me so I went and
killed him,” she told IWPR. Another inmate recently killed her

In the prison it’s widely believed that you can tell who is serving a murder
sentences because they are the most beautiful.

“Women are more cruel,” said deputy prison governor Rostom Mnatsakanian, a
man. “There is one woman here who killed her husband and cut him into 90
pieces, into tiny bits. And when they asked her why, she said she was fed up
with him.”

The prisoners are held in large rooms lined with beds rather than small
cells. The atmosphere gloomy and with so many people around, privacy is
almost non-existent.

Prisoners told IWPR that life has improved at Abovian since the camp was
transferred from the jurisdiction of the interior ministry to the justice

Prison officials say that inmates have the right to work and earn a small
wage, and that they also have computer classes and use of the internet,
access to a psychologist and a health clinic, and regular visits by Armenian

“We have here what many people outside don’t even have – hot water, enough
food, and the right to see our children,” said Arevik, a pleasant young
woman who is another of those serving time for murder. Her sister is doing
time in the prison, and she also has her young daughter who was born here.

“We understand that nothing can replace freedom, but we are still trying to
provide them with a human existence,” said Mnatsakanian. “Thank God, there
is much more order in the [prison] camps in Armenia than in other
Commonwealth of Independent States countries.”

A few days after IWPR’s visit, the prison marked International Women’s Day –
March 8 – with a gift of pearls for all the women from Armenian church
leader Catholicos Garegin II and a concert, and children were allowed to
visit their mothers for a couple of days.

However, Avetik Ishkhanian, head of Armenia’s Helsinki Committee, said that
the Armenian prisons including this one did not yet measure up to
international standards.

“It’s true, it’s become somewhat better now, but the inmates are still
deprived of newspapers, books and any contact with the outside world. They
can only use the telephone for 20 minutes a month,” he said.

Mikael Danielian, who heads another human rights group, the Helsinki
Association, agreed that overall, conditions have improved at Abovian, but
he noted,”There is no decent room here for meetings. And when they complain
about this to the management, they say there is no money. It’s interesting,
there’s money for an aquarium and greenhouses, but not for normal rooms.”

Danielian continued, “The furniture is old, the cells don’t get any air,
there are 10 to 15 people in one room, and in the [nearby] children’s
[detention] camp, all 68 inmates sleep in one room.

“They [the women] have hot water, but bath day is only once a week, so
standards of sanitation are terrible. And why do they have computers if they
can’t use them?”

Each cell also has an informer who listens to everything the others say –
they won’t say who she is or point her out, but simply call her “mother”.

Everyone agrees, though, that life at Abovian is much better than in the men
‘s prison at Kosh, where tuberculosis is rife and general living conditions
are much worse.

“We always hope that those who have served their sentence won’t come back
here, but it doesn’t always work that way,” said deputy governor
Mnatasakanian. “Around a quarter of the prisoners come back. Maybe they’ve
got used to it here.”

Karine Ter-Saakian is a journalist with the Respublika Armenii newspaper in