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Prisons Critically Lack Psychological Resources to Work with Self-Mutilating Prisoners: Report

The Group of Public Monitors Implementing Supervision over the Criminal-Executive Institutions and Bodies (Prisons) of the Ministry of Justice of Armenia has released a specialized research on handling of self-mutilating cases in prisons.

The Group alarms that based on the largest prisons sampled for the research, Armenia’s prisons lack professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers) and professional resources (training, conditions etc) specialized in handling cases of prisoners turning to self-mutilation.

The research was conducted by the Group’s psychologists with a permission from the Ministry of Justice. Researchers came to their conclusions based on observations made in the two largest prisons in Armenia (Nubarashen Prison in Yerevan and Armavir Prison in Armavir town), semi-structured interviews with prison staff, formal information provided by the Ministry of Justice, review of legal acts and other documents.

These two prisons in Armenia have the highest record of cases of self-mutilation. The group states that prison administrations profile inmates as having “negative inclinations” based on attempts of self-mutilation, among other features, such as inclination to flight, alcohol, drugs, aggression, proneness to conflict etc. Being profiled as someone with a “negative inclination” already predisposes them towards psychologist-client, social worker-client relations. A person who has conducted self-mutilation may avoid speaking about intentions of further self-mutilation and other personal issues. As a result, provision of proper support becomes difficult, it becomes more difficult to find out the motives of a prisoner’s self-mutilation and take preventive measures.

Prison staff, including from departments of social and psychological support, claim that reasons for self-mutilation in prisons include issues related to the criminal case (protests) and demands for relocation, ostensible behavior, blackmail, drug addiction, personal and psychological issues and mental disorders.

Thus, profiling somebody as having “negative inclinations” if they have mental disorders or personal issues, increases the risk of suicide and further attempts of self-mutilation and therefore, impedes adequate professional support.

Prisons also critically lack specialists that conduct psycho-social work. Nubarashen Prison has 349 inmates and Armavir Prison – 711. For each of these prisons, the justice correctional system employs 3 psychologists, 1 social worker and 1 part-time psychiatrist. On average, each psychologist is supposed to work with 150 prisoners which is impossible practically and also unethical professionally. Documentation also takes much of the precious time of these specialists and they mostly work based on urgency.

The need for a psychiatrist is also critically evident, as the prisoners have many persons with mental health disorders.

The research has also found out that the psychologists and social workers of prisons have not attended professional trainings for the past two years and have not been specifically trained to work with self-mutilating persons, to provide therapy and conduct preventive counseling. The interviews also indicate professional burn-out among psychologists, as they point out to being tired, fatigued, sleepless, ineffective.

Reasons for professional burn-out, according to the Group, may include lack of clarity with job requirements, lack infrastructure necessary for their work, lack of supervisors, danger and difficulty of work with prisoners etc.

Psychologists are also given tasks by prison administration to engage in such work with the prisoners that has nothing to do with their professional duties, such as explaining them the in-laws of the facility or helping them write letters etc. Thus, prisoners are also unsure that what they speak with the psychologist will remain confidential and will not be used by the prison administration against them.

The Prison Monitoring Group, therefore has recommendations for the Justice authorities, including: improvement of physical infrastructure inside prisons necessary for psychological work; training of the psycho-social department staff; improvement of working conditions including provision of health insurance, increase of wages; and provision of professional supervision. The Group also recommends developing clear guidelines for psycho-social work based on the specific requirements of work with self-mutilating persons. The Justice authorities also need to exclude involving psychologists in giving a negative or positive conclusion about a prisoner, as they are obliged to only provide professional opinions as much as is required by their work ethics. Psychologists should also not visit prisoners in prison cells. Special statistics should be collected about self-mutilation cases, which can be used by the multidisciplinary team in developing intervention strategies for each case.