By Mher Yenokyan
(For the past year Mher Yenokyan, who has served 19 years of a life sentence, has been writing a weekly article for Hetq from his cell at the Nubarashen Penitentiary)
It’s been a little over a year since 19 year-old Suzy, the daughter of my prison mate Soghomon Kocharyan, took her own life
It was a desperate act of a daughter distraught over her father’s plight.
Now, as back then, I still believe that if the two had the chance to see each other more often Suzy wouldn’t have chosen to end her life so tragically. Soghomon believes this as well. When they take me out to the yard for exercise, I sometimes bump into Soghomon and talk to him for a few minutes. It’s during these brief encounters that Soghomon has told me so.
Sadly, the system hasn’t learnt its lesson from Suzy’s suicide. No changes to prison protocol followed allowing lifers and their families much needed contact. Family members are still only allowed one visit per year for a maximum of three days.
If you can find a psychologist on this planet who agrees that embracing, kissing and conversing with family members once a year is sufficient to maintain familial relations, I’ll remain silent and never raise this matter again.
One year ago, influenced by the young girl’s suicide and periodic dances held in United States prisons giving a chance for fathers in prison to meet their daughters, I suggested that similar events be held here in Armenian prisons. Nothing of the kind has yet to be organized.
My colleagues at Hetq have sent me videos of such events, now tradition, held in overseas prisons. I implore you to take a look at this one and you’ll see the emotions when fathers and daughters meet. I’m sure that these individuals will cherish the memories of such encounters for the rest of their lives. Again, I think that if Suzy and Soghomon danced together the young girl would still be with us.
Minister Manukyan distributing books to the Nubarashen prison library (Mher Yenokyan standing on the left)
An open letter to Minister of Justice Hovhannes Manukyan
Dear Mr. Manukyan,
When you visited the Nubarashen Correctional Facility and met with inmates serving life sentences, I raised the issue of visitations with family members, especially for those serving long sentences. On site, you posed the following question to isolation ward Chief R. Stepanyan.
“Do you see anything wrong about allowing inmates more frequent visitations with their families?”
The answer was that such visitations would only have a positive outcome. However, after your visit, instead of positive changes, the barbwire increased just like the infamous Guantanamo Prison.
A lifer can get married but can only see his wife for any length of time just once a year. Is this normal? Does such a rule foster the strengthening of family ties and inmate reeducation? The accepted view of psychologist is that such restrictions have the opposite effect.
Mr. Minister, I have always noted that my main aim is to have my unjust life sentence overturned and to return to lifelong freedom. Prior to this, however, one needs strength to survive and struggle. I derive that strength from the visitations I have with my family. I have studied our entire legislative field and believe that You can, with one directive, just my altering some punctuation marks, resolve this matter.
Solution 1 – Spread the 3 days over the course of the year
I propose a fairly optimal and quick solution, given that legislative solutions drag out for years.
Thus, Mr. Manukyan, I implore you to issue a directive changing the Correctional Code so that the three days of the current annual visitation be spread throughout the year. This would allow us three one day visitations per year.
Solution 2 – Change the comma to a semicolon
The same correctional code allows for additional long-term visitations as an incentive for inmates. But this isn’t the case for Soghomon or me, merely because we escaped prison on two occasions. It’s just because we are an escape risk that we’ve been classified as “negative”.
I’ve petitioned the prison authorities to remove me from the “risk” list but their decision has been to keep me on it for an additional two years. The fact that I am attending university classes and getting excellent grades, the fact that I work as a prison correspondent for Hetq, and that I have published three books in the past few years and have no disciplinary charges against me, doesn’t seem to make any difference.
The reason given by the prison lawyer is Article 16, Point 139, of the internal prison code which states that additional visitations are not granted to “those classified as negatives, those manifesting unlawful behavior, those manifesting a disrespectful attitude towards work or study, those inmates issued disciplinary penalties.”
If a change were to be made in this point, and a semicolon substituted for the comma following the “negative classified” words, then Soghomon and I could be granted additional visitations as encouragement.
Solution 3 – Legislative change
This option, while tedious and time consuming, is vital nevertheless. I also know that a new bill regarding the Correctional Code is being prepared. I would like to see greater attention paid to family matters. But, taking into account that a bill on the criminal judicial code has been waiting in the parliament for over one year, I doubt that the bills regarding the Criminal and Correctional Codes will be voted on in time. Despite this, there are issues that require immediate solutions.
P.S. I ask that Hetq readers forgive me for burdening them with points of law and punctuation. But believe me that family ties are being weakened, and are often destroyed, when inmates are only allowed visitations with family members only once a year. People on the outside fighting to have individuals sentenced to prison returned to freedom are getting scarcer, and the parents of inmates are getting older. We, on the inside, remain alone. Only by struggling, both inside and outside of prison, will result in positive change.