The number of male convicts in Russian jails has fallen by a record 23,000, the Russian independent media Mediazona reports, citing Russian official prison data. This is the largest such jump since 2010: even the largest amnesties had not led to such decreases in the numbers of prisoners. At the same time, the number of female prisoners or prisoners awaiting trial had not changed.
This fall in Russian prisoner numbers happens amid an ongoing recruitment campaign by the Wagner private military company, which is playing a crucial role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The first reports on the recruitment of prisoners to the Wagner PMC appeared in July 2022. By September, videos of Wagner founder and financier Yevgeny Prigozhin personally speaking in the prison colonies began to appear on social media.
Prigozhin, a businessman informally known as “Putin’s chef,” promises convicts that they will be pardoned after six months of fighting against Ukraine. A pardon for a prisoner requires a decree from the Russian president, yet no such decree was seen yet.
In October, Russian lawmakers Andrei Klishas and Olga Kovitidi drafted a bill on pardons for prisoners who take part in hostilities; this document has not yet been adopted, Mediazona writes.
“It is unclear how the participation of prisoners in the Wagner PMC is legally formalized. Presumably, those who have agreed, according to the papers, are transferred to the colonies in the Rostov Oblast; it is not clear how the Federal Penitentiary Service explains their continued absence from the place of detention. Relatives of the recruits are told that their location is secret information. It is also unknown how those who died in the war are processed,” Mediazona notes.
Recently, a Wagner mercenary and ex-convict was executed with a sledgehammer by his own for surrendering to Ukraine.
Analysts from the ISW have noted that Prigozhin is becoming a political force in Russia.