Rehabilitation through crafts?: Young inmates learn skills to get better chance in life after prison

Rehabilitation through crafts?: Young inmates learn skills to get better chance in life after prison


The goal of a special creative center for teenage prison inmates is to let troubled youths become associated with art and crafts in an effort to rehabilitate, said the center’s initiators at an opening of an exhibition of works by offenders who were convicted and sentenced to prison terms before reaching age 18.

The event was held at the Folk Art Museum in Yerevan on October 26.

(The Criminal Code of Armenia stipulates punishment in the form of three to 10-year imprisonment for offenders younger than 18 who commit felonies.)

At present neither non-governmental organizations, nor state-run agencies provide any research that would shed light into how exactly life turns out to be for those who serve out their jail terms as minors and return to life outside detention. The assumption is, however, that for many of them life gets rough as they often lack skills to be able to sustain themselves through honest occupations. Therefore, many who currently serve their detention are happy to have an opportunity to learn new trades or skills that potentially would help them get a better chance in post-prison life.

The center – started as an NGO in 2002 -- operates within the youth and women’s penitentiary in Abovyan, about 15 kilometers from capital Yerevan. It has functioned with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture, since 2007 and recently has also received assistance from the OSCE Yerevan office and from private donations. Four instructors have helped 15 boys to develop skills in pottery, carpentry and woodwork, oil-painting and to learn the history of arts. The young prison inmates attend classes five days a week, studying for two hours each day.

Eighteen-year-old Masis Nazaretyan on Wednesday received a certificate in pottery and from now on is a craftsman with a diploma. He does not know for sure what he will be doing after he is released from prison in 15 months’ time, but he believes what he has learned at the center will be useful for him.

Nazaretyan was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft when he still was a minor. He has already served half of his sentence. Unless he gets released on a parole, Nazaretyan will soon be transferred to a prison for adult convicts.

“Roughly speaking, if one day I need money, I will surely be able to earn some using this skill,” says Nazaretyan, who has been training in pottery for a year. The youth has made different items of clay, such as jars, vases, doll houses, etc.

Its director Temik Khalapyan says the goal of their activities is to make sure children enter their adult lives with new opportunities.

“I have always told the boys that as minors they were somewhat allowed to make a mistake, and it is the task for the adults to make sure they develop some spiritual interest so that they don’t get back to their old ways,” said Khalapyan, who presented certificates to four of the Abovyan penitentiary’s 15 teenage boys. The instructor, at the same time, asked their parents not to spare their time and money for upbringing their children.

The center’s representatives acknowledge that they encounter difficulties in measuring the efficiency of their work as there is no clear information on how former students use their acquired knowledge and skills after being released. They can only measure the effectiveness of their activities by the number of students they train and the number of exhibitions they organize. During the years of the center’s operations a total of 20 exhibitions have been organized and the center has been attended by some 100 underage prison inmates. Information about the fates of former students is patchy. Khalapyan knows only about those who later call them and tell about their successes or those who call and say with regret that they should have listened to their teachers’ advice better.

The Penitentiaries Department of the Ministry of Justice does not inquire about the fates of former juvenile prisoners.

Head of the Vanadzor-based office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Artur Sakunts, who also leads the monitoring group that exercises public control at penitentiaries, says that no NGO has studied this situation yet.

“In general, there is no mechanism in Armenia today that would make it possible to attend to work or education related issues that former convicts, and especially former convicted juvenile offenders who get released from prison, face in their lives,” says the human rights activist.

Nevertheless, those who carry out the project and their supporters are hopeful that reintegration for former teenage prison inmates into society would still be smoother with the help of the arts and crafts center.

“Such an initiative is an opportunity for youths to have an easier adaptation in the future. I wish that they find their way in life and that the society accept them back properly,” said Vladimir Tchountoulov, the Human Rights Program Officer of the OSCE Office in Yerevan.