A sign in one of the pavilions of Vernissage, Yerevan’s open-air art market, reads “Prison Art”. The unusual placard, surely unique in Armenia, refers to artisan products made and sold by detainees thanks to the “Support to Prisoners” Foundation established by the Ministry of Justice in 2005.
The goal of the foundation is to provide jobs for the prisoners and to help them improve their educational level. Out of the existing 12 prisons in Armenia, the foundation runs the program in five: Kosh, Abovyan, Sevan, Artik, and Vanadzor (all of them located in the cities.
The foundation provides inmates with space, instruments and materials; Imagination and creativity are the only requirements. When the products are sold, the foundation withholds the amount for the materials and distributes the rest to the prisoners. If they wish, the money can be transferred to their relatives. The foundation is also working on a series of trainings to broaden the range of skills and professions.
Gagik Melkonyan arrived in Kosh four and half years ago. A radio technician by profession, he reinvented himself as an artisan and now makes lamps and tasbih, a traditional type of prayer beads, which are then sold in the “Prison Art” stall.
“I am totally self-taught, I never made anything similar before entering Kosh. When my relatives or friends visit me, I ask for sketches, for new ideas to develop my mastery. The work in the prison helps to satisfy minimal needs. Also you are busy the whole day so you have no time for thinking of other things,” says Gagik who will be released next year.
The program allowed Gevorg Aslanyan to become more independent. He has no profession and says that he has been involved in “crazy things” until he arrived at Kosh about a year ago. Now a carpenter, Gevorg makes wooden objects and is determined to master a skill that he’s grown to love.
“Had I not learnt woodcarving, I would not have wasted my time in the prison,” explains Gevorg who has spent three years in Kosh and has six more years to go. “Also I feel much calmer when I work. The wood gives unlimited possibilities, the more you develop your mastery the more perfect your works will be. Everything depends on personal imagination”, he adds.
He plans to continue woodcarving once he is free, and to possibly turn it into his permanent profession.
Ruben [not his real name] was already an artist when he entered Kosh - a skilled silversmith, he has focused on perfecting his art and is now one of the facility’s most refined masters. He shapes statues and makes tasbihs.
“Before being jailed, I studied Law and Psychology, but I did not manage to finish either course,” he says. “When I started working, the time started to pass more quickly. I am left with no idle time, plus I make a profit. Also, the administration treats working prisoners differently”, says Ruben, who will be out of Kosh’s high walls in December.
The artcrafts - icons, tasbihs, carpets, woodwork, lamps and other handmade items - are on sale at the pavilion. Anna Harutyunyan has been the salesperson for four and a half years.
“Many people avoid entering the pavilion, the sign scares them,” Anna explains. “Once a couple was walking, the boy wanted to enter, while the girl pulled him back. Still, many people come precisely because the items are made by the prisoners.” Customers include tourists as well as Armenians from the diaspora. Tasbihs are popular, as well as carpets with the Armenian alphabet, she adds.
For Anna, working at the stall has not been an issue. The bottom line is, what underlines the difference, she wonders. “Whether the maker is free or in prison, the object does not change, what matters is the product. ”