Armenia: Former convicts say quarantine is challenging, but not “prison”

Author: Hasmik Baleyan

Illustrator: Mananiko Kobakhidze

Most Armenians were confined to their homes for the better part of two months as part of the government’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

For some, the experience felt like prison.

“These days, people feel oppressed staying in their homes. They feel like they are in prison, because a person’s daily life suddenly and dramatically changed,” psychologist Arpine Davtyan says.

Research shows that social isolation, such as being forced to stay at home, can negatively affect people’s physical and mental health. 

“A man who used to wake up every day, to go to work, to live an active life, now has to stay at home. In the past, a person planned his day, attended his favorite places, and now everything may seem the same to him, which can make him psychologically depressed,” notes Arpine.

Some professions, like astronauts, experience isolation as part of their job. Other groups, like prisoners, are also forced to find ways to deal with forced isolation.

Ashot Manukyan, 44, served 24 years in prison for murder before being released in January.

“Those who have had a particularly long sentence know what isolation means, they know how difficult it is to live in isolation,” he says.

Ashot was just 20 when he went to jail for killing three fellow soldiers during a fight. 

“When you are isolated against your will, and the door is locked on you, you have to stay there. After I was sent to prison, I realized that I was like a lost person,” he says.

“But after a while I didn't think about myself anymore. Even more horrifying was the thought about how painful it was for the families of the victims, and for my family.”

During these years Ashot overcame psychological problems caused by isolation in prison by reading and creating. He wrote poems and books. Ashot also tried to socialize, at a distance. For instance, he kept in touch with the family of the men he killed, apologizing to them and trying to make amends for his actions.

In addition, he started to attend  Urartu University, choosing psychology as a profession. In prison he practiced his profession to help prisoners. 

He is now continuing his education and says that when he finishes his studies, he wants to work with convicts and the soldiers to try and help them avoid his mistakes and control their anger when tensions are high.

Ashot underscores that people should not think about self-isolation at home as a prison term. 

Other former prisoners, like Vahagn Marukyan, agree. He notes that even coping mechanisms are different because prison in Armenia does not offer any of the comforts of home. 

"It is impossible to compare the days spent in prison with anything else. There are no other conditions like prison conditions,” Vahagn, who served 25 years for murder, says.

He was released in 2018 due to poor health.

“There were four to five convicts in each cell and only two beds. We slept on the floor…They didn't take us to bathe for months. Of course, we tried to find a way to wash, bathe, but we took normal bath under the shower maybe once in a year. In prison, I realized that I was like a dead man,” Vahagn says.

“How can this be compared to being isolated at home during the days of the coronavirus? This is temporary; we stay at home to take care of ourselves and the health of others. I have health problems, I walk on crutches, anyway, I am generally at home and I cannot compare home and prison! The house is a sweet corner, where you can do your favorite work, live in a healthy atmosphere, the door is not locked on you at home, and you are not behind bars!”

But for people who have not experienced real prison, the feelings of pressure and isolation can build, notes Dr. Davtyan.

She adds that the fact that some people were allowed to work during the shutdown and others were not, has added to the feeling of oppression.

“The man has lived freely for years and now the government says that he must stay at home. The so-called ‘must’ pressures a person when he has to stay at home, it is not his choice.”

Arpine, the psychologist, says she has received calls from people seeking counseling to deal with the stress of staying at home. 

Ashot also underscores the value of talking to licensed therapists or trying to communicate with family members to relieve stress. 

“I know that these days some people feel oppressed and lonely because of being isolated at home, while others have new problems,” he says. 

“In such stressful situations, you need to share the stress with your loved one and tell him or her about the problem, otherwise, if the person does not talk to someone, those problems will get worse.”




Chai-khana Survay