In the common room of a California prison, a toilet and a man urinating could be seen through the bars.
The toilet had no door, just like the one I had seen in the Nubarashen detention center a few years ago in Yerevan. People were gathered in different parts of the prison cell. There were three Armenians here - all three former residents of Yerevan. They had moved to America in the early 1990s. Two them had been convicted of assault. They had imposed “taxes” on Armenian businessmen, and would visit shops and restaurants from time to time to collect.
“Are Armenians discriminated against here?” I asked.
“No, brother, the Armenians who were here before us set the rules long ago, so we have no problem,” said one of the pair convicted of assault.
The third, S. from Komitas Street, had been convicted of theft. “I used to make $15,000 a day, stealing things and transporting them. But we got caught.” He said that he would steal items and then sell them in his shop. “You lost everything, didn't you? Why did you steal, didn't you make enough off your shop?” I asked, expecting to hear words of remorse. S. smiled and said, “No, brother, I was running the shop but it wasn't registered in my name, so I haven't lost anything.” S. has been sentenced to six years in prison.
There were two Armenians in the next cell. V. has been arrested 19 times and spent 16 years in prison, mainly for theft. He stole cash from a restaurant the last time and returned to dine at the same restaurant two days later. The staff recognized him and called the police. He was also from Yerevan and had been here since 1992.
Chaplain Bedros Hajian told us about the Armenian convicts in various detention centers. He then took us to his office in the largest prison complex in California. The representatives of different religious communities have separate rooms in American prisons, where they meet members of their congregation. Bedros Hajian is not from the Armenian Apostolic Church, he simply preaches the Bible in prisons and works mainly with Armenians.
When I asked Bedros how many Armenians there were in this prison, he looked at his computer screen, opened the prison website and told me, “Name a letter.” I said, “K.” He entered the letter K in the search box for first and last names. A list of prisoners came up matching the search criteria. Within a few minutes, we managed to count dozens of Armenian last names. You can find out about the criminal history and prior convictions of each prisoner by clicking on his last name. The main crimes committed by Armenian convicts include drug sale, prostitution (male), theft and credit card fraud. There are an especially large number of young people in the prison. Starting out as drug users (Armenians here also use the English word drug ), they are soon forced to turn to crime to support their habit.
“There is a drug user in every family, but usually the parents don't know,” Bedros Hajian maintained. He believes drug abuse is the biggest problem in the Armenian community. “There is one way to solve this problem, which is by having Armenian leaders, party heads, the Church and other organizations take the lead. The political parties say that they are political structures and don't deal in social issues. I say, ‘Fine, suppose we free Western Armenia, who's going to live there – drugs users?' The youth here are put on drugs at school on purpose, so that they can be controlled. All the Armenian organizations must unite to fight against this problem. The only way is for everyone to admit that such a problem exists and to work against it. They don't even want to admit that this problem exists,” said Hajian.
I asked Armenian convicts in various prison whether representatives of our church visited them and they said no. The Armenian Apostolic Church in California, where there are around one million Armenians, deals mainly in baptisms, birthdays and memorial services here as well. Our talk with the Prelate of the Western Diocese in the USA, Father Hovnan Terteryan, revealed that the Church is truly disconnected from the Armenians serving time in the state's prisons. “Those numbers are exaggerated, I think there are around 300-500 Armenians in prison here,” said Father Hovnan. When we said that that was not the case, and that we were ready to present the names of thousands of Armenian prisoners, he gave in somewhat and said that they used to have someone visiting convicts, but could no longer afford it with the current number of priests. He then also said that they were training someone, who would then be sent to prisons.
The Los Angeles Times mentioned in a 1998 article that there were 8,000 Armenians in California prisons. Over the past nine years, that number has grown. Bedros Hajian said, “There are 18,000 Armenians in California's prisons today. These are not my figures, they come from the US FBI data.”