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 January 17, 2003 

Coping with Fate: A holiday visit inside Abovian Women's and Juvenile prison

In a frozen but festive hall faces turned red from cold are nonetheless cheerful. Women with interesting but uncommon looks dressed in uncommon manner are sitting in old, cold chairs. Behind them teenagers with shaved heads are dressed in dark blue in the hall decorated for New Year.

It is holiday in Abovian Prison for Women and Juveniles, where those who have done wrong are doing the best they can to overcome the circumstance.

"When my ma goes to work I stay in the 'zone'," says five year old Gayane Sahakyan.

Her mother, 28 year old Arevhat Sahakyan has been in the prison since 1996. She was sentenced for murder.

"In 2004 my times expires. I'm impatiently waiting for the day, when I'll take my daughter to freedom," the mother says.

Arevhat says she doesn't want to recall the past. She decorated her hair and face with small festive garlands, but her eyes are sad.

"I was in the first month of pregnancy when I was sentenced. If I hadn't had her I don't know how I would have managed to spend all these years. Gayane doesn't realize where we are. She just knows that we aren't at home, however, she doesn't know why."

Teardrops fall from the young woman's eyes. She clasps her daughter's head to her bosom.

Usually children are allowed to stay with their mothers until they become two years old, however, Arevhat was allowed to keep her child longer than usually allowed.

"I do everything for my daughter so that she doesn't feel where we are. I decorated our room and prepared the gifts. Our administration also gives presents," she says. "I want to forget the past. I regret that I found myself surrounded by these walls and brought Gayane with me here."

Two year old Yelizaveta Hambardzumyan is everybody's gladness here. They hand her over to each other.

She says, "whatever Santa Clause brings I'll take it." It doesn't matter for her what he will bring, she just wants Santa to bring something.

The girl's mother, 28 year old Astghik Hambardzumyan, says that her daughter was born in prison. For her it's hard to bear the fact that Yelizaveta is growing up isolated from childhood and society, while her mother serves time.

Women like Astghik, who spend their days in prison with children, reside in separate rooms. Every day they get milk and raw foodstuff for children and they make food for them.

"Children are rendered compulsory medical treatment and assistance, they are taken to parks and circus. We aren't dissatisfied with the conditions. But anyway we are behind the bars," says Astghik.

There are 170 prisoners in the prison and approximately 110 of them are women and 60 are minors. The average age of the sentenced women is 40. According to the director, Colonel of Justice Yura Jamalyan more than half of the women are sentenced for murder.

The oldest prisoner is 78 year old Voski Nersisyan. With other old women she has a separate room.

"I've been here for four years and four months and I have one year and six months left. I have three daughters and grandchildren. I killed my husband. He had been drinking all his life and beating me. I couldn't suffer anymore. Now I regret and my only wish is to be free," she says.

All other women stay in the bigger public room not far away from the old women's room. People of different tempers and natures live together. One can find directors, accountants, the educated and those who haven't got even elementary education.

Forty year old Anahit Harutyunyan has spent three years and six months out of a five year period of imprisonment. Two daughters and one son are waiting her at home. She is a hairdresser for the prisoners and also tells fortunes by coffee grounds.

"Looking at clothes and hairstyles of those who visit us, we find out what's the fashion outside. We live by encouraging each other but this is not the place for a woman," she says. "We became close to each other and we are like one family."

Women say they are satisfied with the conditions. They have a bath once a week. It's very important for them that they are provided with soap and washing powder. A doctor visits them every day. It's strange but "rules" of the criminal world are not in force here.

The number of women prisoners is decreasing from year to year. According to Jamalyan, four years ago the number reached 450.

The prison spends 400 drams (about 75 cents) per day for each prisoner. They get meat in their meals provided by the prison's stock of rabbits, pigs and cows. Prisoners who help with the daily care of the animals and other chores can earn up to 5,000 drams (about $10) a month, which is transferred to private accounts.

The prison also has zoological and botanical gardens, where minors are working. Head of the administration, lieutenant colonel of the Justice Rostom Martirosyan says: "A minor who killed a man takes care of animals, flowers and it makes his soul less cruel."

There is also a school, specialized technical school, sport hall and computer study group. But, especially at the holidays, nothing satisfies longing.

Anna Nersisyan, 35, says: "One year and nine months hasn't passed as difficult as these several days. Here one starts to appreciate the value of the freedom."


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