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Data show tens of thousands of inmates disappearing from Russian prisons, likely to fight as mercenaries in Ukraine
Journalists at the independent news outlet Mediazona studied data in 35 regions across Russia and confirmed that the inmate population in these areas fell by 17,000 people in 2022. The findings corroborate reports that thousands of prisoners have left incarceration since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, often to fight alongside Russian troops as mercenaries in exchange for release.
The inmate-population shifts aren’t the same in every Russian region (many prisons no longer publish inmate data, the numbers barely budged in some places where recruiters were reportedly active, and some facilities were vacated to make room for Ukrainian POWs), but the general decline evident in Mediazona’s sample exceeds anything that pre-invasion trends can explain.
Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service temporarily stopped publishing statistics about the nation’s inmate population after releasing data in November 2022 that showed the sudden “disappearance” of 23,000 prisoners in the two months prior. The agency started sharing population statistics again in January 2023, this time releasing numbers more easily reconciled with pre-invasion trends.
The Wager Group paramilitary cartel’s efforts to recruit inmates to fight in Ukraine started getting broad public attention in the summer of 2022. By February 2023, Russia’s own Defense Ministry had seized control of prisoner recruitment, according to activists at the Russia Behind Bars human rights organization, which claims that Wagner recruited as many as 50,000 inmates to fight in Ukraine before the military took over.
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