“There is not even an ordinary chair; what will they disinfect?” How they fight against infection in prisons

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On April 2, the Ministry of Justice announced that five employees of the Vardashen Penitentiary’s Guarding Department have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 28 employees have been isolated. The Public Relations Department of the Ministry reassured that “the above-mentioned employees are performing their service outside the residential zone of the penitentiary institution and have no contact with the detainees and convicts.”

Five days later, on April 7, the ministry announced about eight infected people. “The response to the test was positive for eight employees of the Guarding Department of Vardashen Penitentiary Institution of the Ministry of Justice,” the response to the survey of yerevan.today website reads. The ministry also presented the preventive measures being taken in prisons: visits, deliveries and parcels have been banned, the buildings and residential areas are being disinfected, detainees are being medically examined, their fever is being measured, and so on.

To make sure that this data is reliable, we turned to Lusine Zeynalyan, President of the Justice and Society Human Rights NGO, a lawyer. She often visits penitentiaries, as the organization deals with the health problems of convicts and detainees.

“Even the thermometers do not work; what kind of medical examination are we speaking of? The other day, in one of the penitentiaries, a convict requested a thermometer to measure his temperature, and it showed 55 degrees. They measured it in another place, it showed 34 degrees,” says Zeynalyan. According to her, it is not possible to fight against the spread of the virus only by banning food and visitations, as investigators and lawyers have free access to the prison and can carry the infection.

According to Lusine Zeynalyan, there is an unhygienic situation in the prison. “During the previous government, in November 2019, the medical care departments were separated from the penitentiaries and put into a separate SNCO. In the past, if a health care provider failed to do so, we could contact the head of the facility, and he or his deputies would take immediate action. Now you can’t influence doctors in any way. I had a detainee, who entered the penitentiary with a broken arm. He was admitted and, five days later, nobody approached him when he was in terrible pain, since his arm was broken in two places,” says Lusine Zeynalyan.

We asked her a few questions.

– The Ministry of Justice informs that the buildings are being treated with disinfectants. Have you noticed if this is done or not?

– Yes, I learned from the detainees that it happened in Kosh and Nubarashen, this is true. But only if one enters the Armavir investigation room, sees the garbage and the dust prevailing there, is enough to understand how they disinfect. There is not even an ordinary chair for us to sit on. What will they disinfect?

– They say that convicts and detainees with health complaints are immediately subjected to in-depth checkup and diagnostic examination.

– Right now, I have a detainee in Armavir penitentiary, who applied a week ago saying h eneeded a doctor. They did not take the application and said that a psychologist should come, but there is no psychologist: he has mental problems.

– When moving, transporting the detainees, are they given masks and gloves, as officially announced?

– First of all, they are hardly moved in this period. Even when we apply with motions regarding extensions of detention, they do not bring them. But when we enter a penitentiary, we are not given a mask or gloves. The other day I entered “Armavir” penitentiary, a bottle with supposedly alcohol was there, I squeezed, nothing came out of the bottle. We are told to go and measure our fever in the medical center, then go inside.

– The Ministry assures that one cell has been set up in each penitentiary institution for isolation of those who have symptoms of COVID-19 infection. In other words, should people in one cell be isolated from everyone else, or should a person be isolated in each institution? What can you say about this?

– Rooms have been set aside at the Convicts’ Hospital. They even wanted to remove detainees who were ill. They revolted and threw out their mattresses. Sick people were injected, taken away, and they got worse. The ambulance came, instructed to hospitalize, the doctor of the penitentiary did not accept the instruction. Officials publish whatever information they receive, but we personally go and talk to the detainees.

Syuzan Simonyan

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