BY DR. JUDITH PALLOT, PI “GULAGECHOES”
In a new blog post, Judith Pallot analyses data on Wagner recruits, and explains the limitations of the available sources. A previous, shorter version of this post was published as an article on Riddle, entitled “Lies, damn lies and statistics — how many prisoners has Wagner really recruited?”
One of the principles of international norms for humanizing imprisonment is that the treament of prisoners is politically neutral. However, in times of conflict, prisons are called upon contribute to a state’s war effort, even in democratic countries. This can include reorientating prison industries to meet military needs (manufacturing packing boxes for ammunitions and skis for northern combat, as in the USSR’s Mordovian gulag in WWII); using them to imprison conscientious objectors (my own country, the UK, imprisoned 1000 conscientious objectors during WWII and the USA, 3250 during the Vietnam War); converting them to house conscripts during training. More controversially, prisoners with unexpunged criminal records who have been released on licence have also been recruited into the armed forces in various jurisdictions. On November 4th 2022, Putin signed an amendment to the law on conscription allowing convicts released on parole and under the supervision of the penal inspectorate, to be conscripted to the armed forces in his war against Ukraine. This last step has not always been welcomed by the military because of threat it can pose to discipline. For its part, the state should treat prisoners like any other vulnerable category of citizen in time of war, taking measures to protect them from the war’s consequences, especially in prisons on or near the battlefield.
What no state should ever do is recruit prisoners to fight at the front. In 20th century Europe, Nazi Germany was notorious for SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, comprised of inmates of Nazi concentration camps and regular prisoners.. The USSR took this further after 1941, recruiting 1.2 million gulag prisoners into the army. This is also what has been happening in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Now, before the Kremlin’s propagandists and Putin apologists insist to the contrary, I want to knock on its head the idea that the recruitment of prisoners to fight in a war can ever be voluntary. On the contrary, such recruitment is always forced and a violation of human rights. Here, the observation of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that “the concept of ‘voluntary consent’ is simply meaningless for someone interned at Dachau, even if he or she is promised an improvement in living conditions” (1998:157-58) is relevant for the alleged ‘choice’ being presented to prisoners under the inherently coercive conditions of imprisonment in Russia today. Returning to Agamben, the particular status of the detained individual qua prisoner is what makes it possible for them to become a human subject of experimentation (or in this case ‘cannon fodder’) and reduced to the condition of homines sacres—the condition of “a life that may be killed without the commission of homicide” (ibid, 159). This is the same point as made at the Nuremberg trials, that an individual giving consent should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision. On this last point, Evgenii Prigozhin might well insist that he does make clear to the prisoners forced to assemble on the parade grounds of correctional colonies that death on the battlefield and, if recruits try to desert, execution (and there is a video to prove it) might be their fate, but this is a defence unlikely to hold water with the judges in the Hague.
I am not going to rehearse in this blog the pure evil of the methods used on the battlefield by the Wagner forces, so much has already been written and monitored on social media and Telegram channels. The first-hand reports from participants and observers about Wagner ‘Private Military Company’ methods are no more or less likely to be reliable than other reports in the propaganda war between Russia and Ukraine. The question I wish to comment upon, is the inadvertent ‘fake news’ circulating in the media about the scale of the recruitment of prisoners in Russian correctional colonies to fight against Ukraine.
What the media has claimed
Wagner paramilitaries were involved in the annexation of Crimea and fought alongside Russia-backed separatists in the DNR, and so it was no surprise that the group was involved right from the beginning in the latest phase of the Russian attempt to annex the whole of Ukraine. That this involves the recruitment of prisoners was confirmed with the circulation of a notorious video in the summer of 2022 showing prisoners in a correctional colony being offered freedom in return for six-months service as infantrymen with the Wagner PMC by Prigozhin himself. Subsequent reports leaked from colonies indicated that the Wagner recruiters were being permitted, or encouraged, to helicopter into correctional colonies in a wide geographical spread of regions west and east of the Urals and in the south, neighbouring Ukraine.
In the days and weeks that followed, the numbers involved became a matter of intense speculation in Telegram channels and the western press. Speculation has continued to the present time, with scepticism voiced about Prigozhin’s claim on 9th February 2023 that prisoner recruitment has now ceased. Initially, commentators had to rely on the testimonies of captured Wagnerites and counting graves to estimate the numbers. Estimates of the number of recruits diverged widely, one ‘US official’ without revealing his source giving the modest figure of 1,500 as Wagner’s goal, the media outlet Vazhnye Istorii rather precisely reporting that number was 5786, and Olga Romanova of the NGO Rus’ Sidyashchaya giving the much higher mid-September number of 11 000.
But it was the publication by the Russian Prison Service or FSIN (Federal’naya Sluzhba Ispolneiya Nakazanii) of statistics about the size of the prison population for the 1st November 2022 and then again for the 1st January 2023, that led to a consensus emerging in the number of prisoners apparently recruited by Wagner. I write ‘apparently’ because, as I explain below, the estimates are based on a faulty methodology that was repeated and circulated widely in Telegram channels and reproduced in foreign media and ‘official sources’, most notably the UK Ministry of Defence. The news was firstly, that in September and October of 2022, between 20 000 and 23 000 prisoners were recruited by Wagner; secondly, that the total number from the beginning of the prisoner recruitments from the summer of 2022 was somewhere in the region of 40 000 prisoners, a majority of whom had died or been injured; thirdly, there had been two distinct phases of recruitment in the summer and autumn of 2022, the second tailing off in the last two months of 2022. The story came to an end with the announcement by Prigozhin on 9th February 2023 that he had brought the process to an end.The estimated figures and phases of the Wagner recruitment drive in prisons provided the basis for speculations both about the future course of the war and changing tactics of the Russian forces in the field. Twitter threads emanating from Defence Intelligence of the UK Ministry of Defence assessed the falloff in recruitment as signalling an end to ‘the human-wave style assaults’ in key sectors and as forcing on the military the choice between scaling back their goals or launching a new mobilisation. CNN also maintained there was now proof that, ‘the campaign was no longer delivering’ More generally, explanations circulating in the both Russian and Western media for the slowdown in prisoner recruitment light either on the reluctance of prisoners to volunteer for Wagner as more reports come back of the high death rates among convicts (although, I find this explanation reveals a tenuous understanding of how power works in Russian prisons), or on competition between factions in the Russian elite and that Putin has chosen the regular armed forces over Prigozhin.
In view of these far-reaching conclusions shaping our understanding of Russia’s war plan from the figures circulating about the size and patterns of the Wagner recruitment, it is important to distinguish between fact and fantasy. We do know that prisoners have been recruited straight from prisons to fight with Wagner and we know that prisoners have been deeply involved in the fighting in the region of Bakhmut and Soledar. We also know that some have died, and some have been released having served their six months, although what that freedom consists of, is debatable. But we cannot know the numbers involved using the figures the prison service (FSIN) puts in the public domain. This is because the Russian Prison Service (FSIN) does not want us to know and, like its predecessors, it has perfected the art of obfuscation. Not one statistic released since the beginning of the war can be used to compute how many prisoners by the regular army, Wagner or any other agency have been deployed to fight Putin’s war. I explain why the calculations based on FSIN data repeat an oft-made mistake, but to do so requires a small excursion into what can be learned from different types of data on prisoner numbers.
Stocks and flows
Changes in the total number of prisoners over time in any jurisdiction is a common measure of the performance of a prison system. Generally, a falling prisoner population is taken as a ‘good thing’ and evidence of a criminal justice system moving in a more humane direction, and the opposite is the case when numbers rise. However, penal sociologists caution against drawing too many conclusions from numerical trends. They list the variety of factors that affect changes in prisoner numbers. These include the types of offences that are criminalized, how often pre-trial detention is used as a preventive measure, court sentencing practices, the level of development of alternatives to incarceration, the average length of custodial sentences, and practices in relation to early release and parole. To these must be added extraneous events that can cause sudden changes in prisoner numbers such as mass amnesties, war, revolution, repression, environmental catastrophes, epidemics, regime and policy changes. The overall number or prisoners at any census moment can be the result of any these processes individually or in combination, working together or against one another. For this reason, it is always important to drill down to identify the processes responsible for changes in overall prisoner numbers and to avoid jumping too impulsively to conclusions.
Russia is proud of the decline in prisoner numbers in the past two decades since the highs of the late 1990s when it topped the incarceration rate globally. The reasons for the decline in numbers shown in Table 1 are complex and they provide a backdrop to the discussion of Wagner recruitment.
|Year||Total prisoner population||2-year Increase/decline||% +/-|
|1994||722 636||+23 736||+3.4|
|1996||920 685||+198 046||+ 27.4|
|1998||1 009 863||+89 178||+9.7|
|2000||1 060 404||+50 541||+5.0|
|2002||980 151||-80 253||-7.6|
|2004||847 004||-133 147||-13.6|
|2006||823 403||-23 601||-2.8|
|2008||883 436||+60 033||+7.3|
|2010||864 197||-19 239||-2.2|
|2012||755 651||-108 546||-12.5|
|2014||677 287||-78 364||-10.4|
|2016||646 085||-31 202||-4.6|
|2018||602 176||-43 909||-6.8|
|2020||523 928||-78 248||-13.0|
|2022||465 896||-58 032||-11.7|
|2023||433 006||-32 890||-7.1|
In the table, changes in the total number of prisoner are given biannually as reported in the World Prison Brief. The increases or decreases in the table are a simple measure of the surplus or deficit of prisoners present at the end date, compared with two years previously (excepting of 2023 which is for one year only). It does not represent the number of prisoners over the accounting prison entering the prison system or exiting from it, although a sudden jump can suggest an extraneous event or combination of extraneous events of the sort I note in the paragraph above. The other thing to remember is that these are aggregate statistics, the sum total number of prisoners in all the different facilities in the prison estate. The number of prisoners in a census period can move in different direction in different types of facilities. Figures 1 and 2 show this for SIZOs and correctional colonies (standard, strict and special) on fixed dates during the past 34 months. These different directions of change provide an important context for any discussion of the Wagner recruitments, which have taken place exclusively in correctional colonies.
Figure 1. Changes in the total number of people held in pre-trial detention centres (SIZOs and PFSIs) in Russia
Figure 2. Changes in the total number of people held in post-conviction correctional colonies (ispraviltel’nie kolonii) in Russia
The statements about the number of recruited prisoners circulating in the media draw upon FSIN census statistics like those used in the tables and figures above. These, however, are only snapshots of the number of prisoners in FSIN facilities for at a particular point in time and are what demographers call population stocks. FSIN has been publishing population stock figures since 1996, when it joined the Council of Europe and was forced to become more transparent, but its response has been minimal. The statistics page on the FSIN website (FSIN.gov.ru) consists of no more than half a dozen tables that give aggregated totals for the whole country and relate to a limited number of variables. FSIN does not published data on the number of prisoners arriving and leaving – termed population flows – its facilities for any accounting period. Population flows are the figures that would allow the estimate of the number prisoners recruited for Wagner after the numbers for prisoners exiting the system for other reasons had been deducted. Population flows are a dynamic measure of the flow through the prison system; that is, they are a measure of the turnover of prisoners. FSIN has reasons, known only to itself, for not wanting to publish these figures. However, occasionally, it has had to produce them in response to a Council of Europe request. The Council of Europe published figures for prisoner flows for all member countries, including Russia, for the year 2020. During that year, the number of prisoners arriving in FSIN facilities of all types was 376 144 and the number leaving was 234 745. This gives a turnover rate of 28.7%, which is quite low compared with other jurisdictions in the industrialised countries, a function mainly of long average sentence length in Russia and the high frequency of the use of remand into custody as the preventive measure for even minor offences. There might also have been a COVID-19 effect during the year. The Council of Europe flow rate does not record inter-facility transfers of prisoners, which means that the inflow and outflow figures relate to SIZOs and all types of penitentiary together. Included in the outflow figures, therefore, is the combination of prisoners being freed in 2020 from all types of facilities, not just correctional colonies. In the case of SIZOs, the outflow of prisoners (meaning those who are freed from custody) include those for whom the statutory period of two months on remand has expired and have to be transferred onto an alternative preventive measure, such as house arrest or bail. The practice of courts automatically extending individual prisoners’ time in custody (allowed for up to eighteen months with an explanation of the exceptional circumstances) has begun to change under pressure from the General Prosecutor to reduce overcrowding in SIZOs. Instances of prisoners in economic and high-profile cases or because of ill-health being transferred to non-custodial preventive measures have been becoming more common. They also include prisoners who have come to trial and are either convicted (>99% of the total) or discharged. Between two thirds and three quarters of convicted offenders are given non-custodial punishments (community service, compulsory labour, arrest, fines) or a suspended prison sentence (27% of all convictions). The majority of prisoners who proceed to trial and are released from prisons within one or two months of being remanded into custody. However, approximately 30% of prisoners released from SIZOs re-offend or break the terms of their conditional discharge and are returned into custody and are returned to prison. All this adds up to a high rate of turnover in SIZO. The figure for outflow for 2020 includes the large volume of releases from SIZOs and a significant portion of these boost the figure of inflow. Rapid turnover is also a feature of correctional colonies and other post-conviction custodial institutions (tyurmy, colony-settlements, medical institutions). Prisoners are released from penitentiary institutions at the expiry of their sentence, in instances of case annulment or review, a successful application for early release (which in 2022 was granted in 50% of applications), transfer to a non-custodial form of punishment such as community service, the ‘new’ punishment of ‘forced labour as an alternative to deprivation of freedom’, on grounds of ill-heath and death, and amnesties. To this we can add people captured in Ukraine who are included in prisoner exchanges and the Wagner recruits, both, we must assume, are included in one of the above categories. According to the Minister of Justice, of the prisoners released from correctional colonies on license 44% re-offend within a year, and all are liable to being returned into custody to serve out their sentence or for investigation of a new offence. Russia’s high recidivism rate is explained by factors affecting all jurisdictions – the difficulties recently freed prisoners have of finding work and a place to live – but is exacerbated by long sentences and the geographical dispersal of prisons which undermine prisoners’ links with family and home. Homelessness is a characteristic feature of prisoners released from correctional institutions in peripheral regions who have insufficient funds to return to their previous place of residence in the European centre. With no money, no job and nowhere to live they rapidly turn to crime to survive.
The processes described above explain why the inflow of prisoners into Russian prisons in 2020 was greater than the outflow, even though the stock of prisoners in that year declined. This is because stocks and of flows answer different questions about populations numbers. In order to answer the question of how many prisoners were recruited by Wagner we would first need FSIN to disclose the figure for the number of released prisoners in any time period. Only then could we start estimating on how many to subtract from that figure for prisoners released on UDO, grounds of ill health, death, escape and transfer to non-custodial forms of punishment and so on. Even then, it would better if any calculations used the outflow figures for correctional colonies, not the whole prison system. Bearing in mind that the Council of Europe outflow figures for Russian prisons quoted above give an average monthly in 2020 of c. 20 000, the claims that have circulated in the media about the number of Wagner recruits must be wrong. But because they were derived by comparing stocks, that was always going to be the case. The initial mistake, which in her defence is a common one, seems to have been made by the director of Obshchestvennyi Verdict, Natalya Taubina, who noticed that the stock of prisoners in the prison estate during the month of October 2022 was 13 735 people less than a month earlier and that this reduction was greater than the total for the first 9 months of the year. Unfortunately, she then (mis)took this for the outflow of prisoners and, having made an estimated deduction for the volume of prisoners leaving for other reasons, concluded that, “[With] the daily reports of the arrival in correctional colonies of members of the Wagner group, all this looks like evidence that a significant portion of this outflow (ottok) relates to recruitment in colonies”. The figure of c. 10 000 prisoners recruited per month soon became the received figure for monthly recruitment. Then when FSIN posted an updated total prison population on the 1st January FSIN posting showing an overall the decline of the prisoner stock during the preceding two months. Radio Free Siberia explain this drop as a return to normal rate of release: “From the updated data, it follows that from November to January, there were 6,000 fewer prisoners in the colonies – about the same pace as they were released earlier. For comparison, in September and October, there were 23,000 fewer prisoners in the colonies, which was explained by the active recruitment of prisoners to participate in the war in Ukraine.” This is a sorry episode in the history of journalism. It speaks to the frustrations during times of war of the absence of hard facts. However, the suggestion that a prison system with a total population of nearly half a million normally would release only 3000 prisoners per month, beggars belief. In fact, the monthly average calculated from the flow statistic available from the Council of Europe is 20 000 for all prisoners and this, was well before the 24th February 2022.
Can we believe FSIN statistics anyway?
An equally relevant concern as the methodology for counting prisoners for Russia watchers is the reliability of the statistics that FSIN posts in the public domain. Against the backdrop of the amount of falsification that is going on in the media about the war and the prison service’s history of mendacity going back to the gulag, it is surprising how willing commentators have been of accepting the figures on FSIN website as genuine. Even assuming that FSIN’s statistics are ‘real’ we, nevertheless, need to remember that the agency has myriad ways of manipulating data to tell a story that meets the demands of the day. The most obvious and effective technique is simply to withhold inconvenient data. The absence of statistics on the number of releases per annum is a long-standing case in point, and since the war postings even of stocks have become erratic and less detailed. The January 1st, 2023, ‘statistics page’ on the FSIN website does not give the total population separately for different types of facility, as it had done previously. We are left with a single figure for the total number of prisoners and the number of different types of penal institutions making up the prison estate.
In managing the current tension between showing too great and too little a decline in prison population numbers, FSIN has various additional weapons in its cupboard. One of the most tried and tested is the ‘re-categorization’ of prisoner groups, which can be used to boost or reduce the total prisoner population. We do not know what classificatory scheme FSIN is using for prisoners-of-war and civilians seized in Ukraine and transferred to Russian facilities, nor do we know how the inmates of the prisons in the occupied territories now incorporated into the Russian Federation are recorded. There is also a question mark, also, over the classificatory status of people transferred to sentences of “forced labour as an alternative to deprivation of freedom”. Interestingly, in the January 1st 2023, FSIN posting of updated statistics, “correctional centres” (ispravitel’nie tsentry) are included in a list of facilities where prisoners (zaklyuchennye) are held. These are the barracks, many on the territories of correctional colonies, assigned to the so-called free forced labourers. Then, there is the means of moderating prisoners numbers by manipulating the technique of aktirovka – the release of prisoners on grounds of ill health, which was used in the gulag by camp commanders to suppress the mortality statistics.
There is much about its current activities that FSIN clearly wants kept secret – the Wagner recruitment, impact of COVID-19 in prisons, the fate of prisoners-of-war and civilians captured in the field, and the scale of the repression – all of which will have affected stocks and flows in the prison estate. These impacts are being felt at a time when FSIN is also wanting to maintain the myth that the Russian Federation’s exit from the Council of Europe has not halted its journey towards developing a more humane prison system. It means that FSIN has had to keep a careful watch on the data it releases. I suspect it was caught off guard by the interpretation of the total month-on-month prisoner numbers it was in the practice of publishing, not least because, logically, it could not have been expecting it. Instead of the furore about Wagner recruitment, it presumably was offering the figures up as proof of how well it is doing in humanising the prison system.
As for the question of how many prisoners have, with the connivence of FSIN officials at all levels, actually been recruited for Wagner, this remains unknown. And so it will remain for at least the next 75 years until a time when the archives are opened to historians of the Russo-Ukrainian war or, in the best case scenario, until there is a liberal government installed in Moscow and the perpetrators for the crime of the forcible recruitment of prisoners to fight Putin’s war is underway in Strasbourg.
 Normally the terms of the use of prisoners on parole is that they have to serve out the rest of their sentence after the end of their military service and that any disciplinary offence whilst in the forces force will count as a violation of their parole and result in their return to prison or transfer to a penal battalion. In the case of the current amendment to the service in the army is counted as a postponement, or otsrochka, in a prisoner’s sentence, but this can be lifted by the courts if an individual has shown particular courage in the field (https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-63511583).
 There were also the Nazi Germany was notorious for its Strafbataillone or penal battalions made up both of deserters and disruptive elements in the armed forces and convicts conscripted to fight in exchange to the death penalty or long prison sentence. In other jurisdictions in the industrialized world, recruiting prisoners currently serving sentences was either forbidden by law or prohibited by the regulations of the different branches of the armed forces. In the USA, some prison districts responded to requests by prisoners to join up by permitting them to be trained in anticipation of joining up after their release (for example, Ohio State Penitentiary Prisoners Form Training Legion to Fight for U.S.” (1942, May 4). LIFE, 32.
 The Nuremburg Code: see https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm199711133372006
 The obvious difference from prisoners being used for medical experiments is that the Wagner recruits, if not killed during their first assault on the frontline line, are participants in the crime of aggression against Ukraine and, individually, some may be guilty of perpetration of crimes against humanity as well as themselves being victims. This is conundrum that human rights lawyers have already begun discussing.
 Mykhailo Podolyak adviser gives precise and lower figure of 38,224 (https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/podolyak-nearly-80-of-russian-prisoners-recruited-by-wagner-group-killed-injured-captured-by-ukraine) and Olga Romanova a high figure of 50,000 https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-wagner-mercenaries-halt-prisoner-recruitment-campaign-founder-prigozhin-2023-02-09/; a Meduza article of 6th February on the Wagner recruitment under the headline, “On the second round. PMC Wagner recruiters again go around the colonies, from where they have already taken prisoners – but now they are almost not believed”
 Screenshots of the Ministry of defence twitter feed were widely circulated; for example, https://www.dw.com/ru/cto-izvestno-o-pomilovanii-zaklucennyh-v-cvk-vagner-razbor-dw/a-64605292. I haven’t been able to find the original.
 For example, The Times UK, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russia-wagner-group-stops-recruiting-prisons-inmates-ukraine-war-2023-j2ghwmv2l ; https://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/888862.html; https://www.newsweek.com/putin-wagner-group-prigozhin-clash-ukraine-war-1779223
 The last serious census of the prisoner population that reached he public domain in Russia was taken in 1999 under the editorial control of the late Aleksandr Solomonovich Mikhlin but even this was frustratingly unhelpful for detailed analysis as that contained no absolute numbers but, rather, percentages and averages and only for the national level. FSIN has had a long -erm fear of producing any data disaggregated by region.
 The total number of custodial sentences given out in 2020 was 149 682 but of these 147 751 were suspended, that is over 985 of the total. Assuming that all the accused were held on remand prior to trial, the number on conditional release probably makes up makes up c. one third of all releases from the Russia prison system. (https://globcci.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Problems-of-the-Effectiveness-of-Suspended-Sentence-in-Russia-2020.pdf
 Recidivism rates are notoriously underreported. This figure comes from a report of a meeting of Chuichenko, Minister of Justice, with Vladimir Putin in January 2021 (https://news.ru/society/v-minyuste-nazvali-procent-recidiva-sredi-rossijskih-zaklyuchyonnyh/). At the same meeting he said 100,000 prisoners on average are released from the criminal correction system but precisely what he was referring to is not disclosed. This is more than half the number reported by the Council of Europe for the previous year! It could be that he was referring only to convicted prisoners and not those released from SIZOs. He also did not disclose to what time period the recidivism percentage relates. I have seen in Russian language reports recidivism rates as quoted as widely different as 20% and 75%.