Inmate War Recruitment Craze Forces Russian Prison Closures


Russia has recruited so many prisoners to replenish its manpower in the war in Ukraine that some Russian prisons may need to close soon for lack of prisoners, according to a regional official.

Mark Denisov, the Krasnodar region’s human rights commissioner, told a legislative assembly meeting Thursday that several prisons, including a men's penal colony and correctional colony No. 16 in Areysky and Hromadsk, will need to shutter, according to Kommersant.

“I note one alarming trend: a one-time large reduction in the number of convicts in the conditions of the special military operation prompted someone to report to the top about the need to close penitentiary institutions in order to optimize and save money,” he said. “A number of institutions will be closed this year in our region.”

Russia will also close colony No. 10 in Ust-Ilimsk and sections of the colony at IK-31 and IK-5, according to an ombudsman report on the region.

“The size of the ‘prison population’ has decreased significantly,” the report states, adding that the number of prisoners in the region at the beginning of this year has decreased since the beginning of 2023 by 17.5 percent. “The draft order on the liquidation of three institutions is being agreed upon.”

Russia has long relied on prison recruits to boost personnel numbers on the frontlines while avoiding unpopular mobilizations. The Kremlin called up a mobilization in the fall of 2022 following a defeat in Kharkiv, but the order was highly unpopular, forcing Russia to rely on alternative ways to boost its manpower.

Backfired: Putin’s Prison Recruits Spiral Out of Russia’s Control

In 2022, Russia’s penal colonies lost an estimated 32,890 prisoners, according to a Mediazona report. Russia’s penal service previously reported that the country’s prison population decreased by more than 20,000 between August and November 2022. Since early 2023, the country’s penal service stopped releasing data.

Russia had approximately 433,006 prisoners in January 2023, according to a report from the Russian penal system. That number plummeted to 266,000 by October, according to Deputy Justice Minister Vsevolod Vukolov, raising questions about how many war recruits helped account for that drop.

A Washington Post tally of Russian prisoners sent to war, which was based on prison numbers before the invasion, came to 100,000.

Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged sending prisoners to war last year, noting that they were “atoning for their guilt with blood.”

They can “atone for their crimes with blood on battlefields, in military units, under flying bullets and shells,” Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov added.

The former head of Russia’s Wagner Group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, also recruited prisoners for the invasion of Ukraine. The mercenary boss, who died last year, had offered prisoners a pardon if they survived the war for six months.

But many inmates in the seemingly endless stream of prison recruits went to Ukraine only to die. Wagner’s recruitment of prisoners, known as “Project K” recruitment, likely peaked at 40,000 in early 2023, according to a British intelligence assessment. By late July, at least 20,000 of them had been killed in the war, amounting to “one of the bloodiest episodes in modern military history,” according to the assessment.

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