"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.

Parliament, in turn, is working on a package of reform proposals, but details are not yet available. The reform ideas are scheduled to be publicly presented November 20.

The opinions expressed in IWPR Online are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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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.

Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan told reporters that the 1,200-inmate prison would be a modern facility with 16 square metres cells holding four prisoners each. The first block will be a high-security wing, and other buildings will be designed to allow the prisoners a little more freedom.

“Some 90 percent of defendants get sent to prison before a court ruling,” said Sakunts, referring to a practice prevalent in neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan as well.   

Avetisyan had no complaints about the prison, saying that “the only thing I’d like would be for prisoners to have a right to early release”.

"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?"

The table below gives an indication of the trend in the female prison population. The final row shows the latest figures available.

"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."

                                                     ARMENIA

Ishkhanyan told IWPR that judges had been known to impose four-year terms for crimes as trivial as stealing a pair of shoes.

It consists of the number of female prisoners in the prison population on a single date in the year (or the annual average) and the percentage of the total prison population that female prisoners constituted on that day. 

“The Armavir prison will be brought into use in phases. At the end of this year and in the first quarter of next year, one building for 400 people will open,” Gor Glechyan, a justice ministry spokesman, told IWPR.

In a 2011 report, a group of 10 prison observers cited “lawlessness and prison overcrowding” as critical problems confronting Armenia’s prisons. [Editor’s Note: The observer group was financed by the Open Society Foundation Armenia, part of the Open Society Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the New-York-City-based Open Society Foundations, a separate part of that network.]

Ishkhanyan said few prisoners were prepared to complain about life inside.

The pre-trial/remand population rate is calculated on the basis of the national population total. All national population figures are inevitably estimates but the estimates used in the World Prison Brief are based on official national figures, United Nations figures or figures from other recognised international authorities. 

A new prison is currently under construction in the city Armavir, not far from capital Yerevan. It is scheduled to be completed in fall 2013.[5] The opening of the prison in Armavir will allow the authorities to lose the Nubarashen prison.[6] $20 million will be spent on its construction.[7]

The female prison population rate is calculated on the basis of the national population total. All national population figures are inevitably estimates but the estimates used in the World Prison Brief are based on official national figures, United Nations figures or figures from other recognised international authorities.

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 priests.

An IWPR investigation has discovered that hundreds of girls from the ethnic Avar community in eastern Georgia are being forced to undergo female...

Avetik Ishkhanyan, the head of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, noted that changes were also made to other prisons, for example at Nubarashen, the country’s most overcrowded jail, where toilets were separated off from cells by new dividing walls.

Armenia’s 12 prisons are designed for 4,400 people, but they regularly hold 5,000 or more. Space is so tight that inmates often have to sleep in shifts.

Prisons In Armenia

Anna Muradyan is a journalist with the Hetq newspaper in Armenia.  

Armenian legislation has been amended to bring it into line with European standards, and now stipulates that each inmate should have four square metres of space.

Human-rights activists aren't necessarily cheered by such comments. Ishkhanian and Sakunts both suggested that resolute statements about addressing issues could just be electoral cycle rhetoric, adding that “lawmakers’ proactive approach is only temporary.”

It consists of the number of pre-trial/remand prisoners in the prison population on a single date in the year (or the annual average) and the percentage of the total prison population that pre-trial/remand prisoners constituted on that day.  

“Some of them who sew up their mouths already have the holes for it. It has become something very common,” said Tovmasian at an October 31 press briefing. “Just like girls pierce their ears and wear earrings, they sew up their mouths.”

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

Most prisoners in Armenia are held in ill-equipped Soviet-era facilities, where they sleep in bunk beds in large rooms of up to 70 square metres.

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 says. Another inmate recently killed her mother-in-law.

The number of female prisoners fluctuates and so the above figures give an indication of the trend but the picture is inevitably incomplete.  

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 standards.

Outraged, some civil society activists sent thread and needle to Tovmasian, demanding the minister’s resignation, and that he try sewing his own eyes and mouth shut. Human rights activist Avetik Ishkhanian, head of the Helsinki Committee, which monitors Armenia’s 11 penitentiaries, stressed that “if [prisoners] are now talking and resorting to extremes, that means they have hit the bottom.”

Varuzhan Yeghiazaryan, the head of the Sevan correctional facility, contrasted this with the English prison system, where four professionals work with each prisoner. In Armenia, unfortunately, team leaders have no doubt in their mind whenever they say, “He’s out, but he’ll be back soon.”

Armenia’s government says it is prioritizing the issue of prison conditions, and officials contend that a four-year strategy will solve the prison-overpopulation problem by 2017. But rights activists are skeptical. Armenia has carried out prison reforms repeatedly since 1991, when it declared independence from the Soviet Union, with few tangible results, they say.

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."

In an attempt to attract greater attention to demands for improved living conditions behind bars, one prisoner sewed his eyes shut; two others sewed their mouths. A third cut off his little finger.

In June, Ombudsman Karen Andreasyan took British ambassador Katherine Leach to see Nubarashen to look at the problems.