Firstly, not all criminals from Russian prisons join Wagner PMC, only a minority do (not more than 8%). Of those criminals who do join, not everyone knows that their chance of living is dangerously slim, since it is hard to come by the mortality statistics, especially if you are in a Russian prison. However, it is true that a substantial number of prisoners join despite knowing all that. Some of the reasons include:
- Some are optimistic and think that it will be only a quick trip to Ukraine.
- Some have exceedingly long prison sentences (for murder, etc), and the war offers them a chance to go free in 6 months.
- For some, in addition to clemency, the military service "offers pride and a sense of purpose" and "gives you the chance to actually be someone".
Artyom [ex-prisoner, Wagner recruit] (through translator):
These military guys show up in full uniform and say: Here's how it is.
You fight for half-a-year. If you're alive and well, you get a full
pardon, 100,000 rubles per month. Yes or no?
I say yes. I figure I can fight for half-a-year.
Although we weren't able to independently verify Artyom's account, it
corresponds to assessments of how Russia is using convicts as
expendable fighters thrown at the enemy in human waves. For many of
the convicts being held here, the path from a Russian prison to a
Ukrainian prisoner of war camp is very short, because the Russian
military uses the convicts as storm troops, and the casualty rate is
very high, and so is the rate of capture.
This man was recruited from a prison in the occupied the Donetsk
region of Ukraine, and was told he'd merely be used to dig trenches
and carry the wounded.
Man (through translator):
Yevgeny Prigozhin flew into our prison and talk to the prisoners.
There were 560 people; 220 agreed to sign a contract with the Wagner
Group and participate in the special military operation.
This prisoner had eight years left to serve on a sentence for
attempting to sell two kilograms of narcotics, when he signed a
contract with the Wagner Group. After training for seven weeks, he
fought just one battle.
Simon Ostrovsky, "From prison to the frontlines: Thousands of Russian convicts sent to fight in Ukraine". PBS NewsHour, March 03, 2023: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/from-prison-to-the-frontlines-thousands-of-russian-convicts-sent-to-fight-in-ukraine
Nabiev’s common-law wife, Olga Viktorova, confirmed to Reuters that
Nabiev had been killed while serving with Wagner in the military
campaign in Ukraine. She said that her husband had been nearing the
end of his prison term, and that he had substantial credit card debts
that she was now left to pay. She said she did not know that her
husband had joined Wagner until after his death. Russian independent
news site iStories has reported that Prigozhin visited Penal Colony
No. 2 to recruit fighters in August. Reuters couldn’t independently
verify the report.
“He always had crazy ideas. An incorrigible optimist,” Viktorova said.
Nabiev probably “thought that he’d take a quick trip to Ukraine and
earn some money.”
According to a regular report published by the Russian Federal
Penitentiary Service, Russia’s penal colony population decreased by
about 8% from 353,210 in August to 324,906 in early November, the
largest drop in more than a decade. The report gave no reasons for the
sudden, sharp decline, which coincided with the beginning of Wagner’s
prison recruitment push. The Federal Penitentiary Service did not
reply to detailed questions for this article.
A third man, Vyacheslav Kochas, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by
a St. Petersburg court for murder and armed robbery in 2020, when he
was 23. [...] Kochas’ lawyer, Stepan Akimov, described his former
client as “a really ordinary guy” whom he said had been unfairly
convicted. The last he heard from Kochas was a text message after his
appeal failed, thanking Akimov for his help. Akimov learned from
Reuters that his ex-client had joined Wagner.
“I can imagine, given the length of his sentence, and how young he
was, it seemed to him a way to go free,” said Akimov. “When a prisoner
has a double digit sentence, here they’re offering release in six
months. Apparently, Vyacheslav thought this offer was a way out.”
Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory: Russia’s super mafia, a book on
Russia’s criminal and prison cultures, says the potential appeal of
Wagner to inmates is wider than just a bid for clemency. Service with
Wagner, he said, offers pride and a sense of purpose to convicts with
few prospects after release, people who have spent time in a prison
culture suffused with “a very strong Russian nationalist tinge.”
“Yes, this will give you the chance to get out of prison, but also it
gives you the chance to actually be someone,” said Galeotti. “This is
a way in which actually Wagner can appeal to people who definitely
are, or believe themselves to be, marginalised, outsiders, losers in
some way in the system, and gives them the chance to think of
themselves as becoming winners.”
Felix Light, Filipp Lebedev and Reade Levinson, "A Russian graveyard reveals Wagner’s prisoner army". A Reuters Special Report, January 26, 2023: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/ukraine-crisis-russia-graves-wagner/