These Ukrainian convicts say they'd rather fight than sit in prison

Nearly 100 inmates were recently released early from a medium-security prison colony on the outskirts of Kyiv, into the hands of the country's military.

The men are swapping their tan prison uniforms for combat gear, and converting the remainder of their multi-year sentences to serving an indefinite time on Ukraine's front line.

As the country's military grapples with exhausted troops, depleted ranks and fewer volunteers, Ukrainian officials are hoping the country's prisons can provide as many as an additional 20,000 soldiers — and have launched a recruitment campaign to drum up volunteers.

"It doesn't matter if I shoot or dig trenches," said Renat Temirgaliev, a 25-year-old inmate who is seven years into a ten-year sentence for murdering his former boss, at a construction site over a payment dispute.

"I want to be a hero of Ukraine. I want to protect my country."

Temirgaliev is waiting for a new copy of his passport in order to submit his official application for the military.

WATCH | From inmate to infantry:

Under Ukraine's new scheme, prisoners can apply to enlist, but need approval from the court. Some crimes make them ineligible, including rape, national security offences, and having killed two or more people.

Ukrainian officials contend this recruitment process is fair, free of coercion and dissimilar from how Russia has harnessed and used convicts for its war machine.

Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners signed on as Wagner mercenaries in the early months of the conflict,  lured by the promise of a presidential pardon if they survive a six-month contract.

Independent Russian journalists recently reported that more than 17,000 of them were killed in the bloody fight for Bakhmut last year.

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, in the prison dormitory that he shares with two dozen other men, Temirgaliev said he told his family about his decision to enlist, and his mother was firmly against it.

"She thinks I'm going to be killed and won't come back alive," he said. 

"I think everything will be OK. But if my destiny is I'll be killed, then so it will be."

 Renat Temirgaliev mops a hallway at a penal colony near Kyiv on June 12, 2024. He says with military recruitment officers have come to the facility, he says no one is being pressured to enlist.
Temirgaliev mops a hallway at the penal colony on Wednesday. He says military recruitment officers have come to the facility, but says no one is being pressured to enlist. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Already in training

CBC News visited the prison colony, and agreed to not reveal its exact location at the request of Ukraine's Ministry of Justice, which cited security reasons. The news crew was allowed to freely question prisoners who agreed to be interviewed beforehand, but prison officials kept a close watch.

The almost 100 inmates who were recently released have already been sent to Eastern Ukraine and are receiving training near the city of Kramatorsk, according to officials.

After tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an urgent call to arms, and said that prisoners with combat experience would be released and could "compensate for their guilt in the hottest spots of war."

Officials say that, back then, 13 prisoners with substantial combat experience were released from the same facility that CBC News visited.

Now they believe a few hundred inmates from the same facility may volunteer to go.

A penal colony outside of Kyiv had 15 per cent of its inmates recently released to the Ukrainian military. The men are currently undergoing training in eastern Ukraine.
Almost 100 inmates were recently released from the colony, and have already been sent to Eastern Ukraine. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Since Ukraine passed a law at the beginning of May allowing convicts to enlist, officials say more than 4,500 inmates have applied for the military, and nearly 2,000 of them have been approved by the court.

After prisoners apply, they are given an interview by the military, followed by a medical check and a brief court hearing, often through online video. 

Watched closely

Dmytro Tkachenko, a criminal judge, says his court in Boryspil, a small city just outside of Kyiv, has already dealt with applications from 100 inmates. He tells CBC News that he has only rejected two of them because the men didn't really appear too keen on joining the military.

He says part of the court's goal is to make sure the applicants haven't been pressured, and he says most seem to be motivated by patriotism.

"Some of them told me that they feel some responsibility for the country, for the Ukrainian people," Tkachenko said in an interview from the courthouse.

"I think some prisoners may be more effective in the war."

Dmytro Tkachenko says the court in Boryspil, Ukraine has already heard 100 cases relating to inmates who want to join the military and he says they will be hearing  and dozens more in the coming weeks.
Criminal judge Dmytro Tkachenko says his court has already heard 100 cases relating to inmates who want to join the military. He says they will be hearing dozens more in the coming weeks. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

If the men desert the military before the war is over, they could face another ten years in prison.

Tkachenko says while they are serving, they will be closely watched by the Ukrainian military and, after the war ends, will be free but on parole.

After some of Russia's Wagner mercenaries returned home from the frontline, there were several media reports about the newly freed men committing additional crimes, including violent assaults and murder.

Short on soldiers

Throughout history, militaries have often bolstered their numbers by turning to the prison population. During the Korean and the Vietnam wars, U.S. judges would sometimes give convicts the choice of going to jail or enlisting.

Ukraine's penal recruitment comes as the military is struggling to boost its ranks after nearly two and a half years of war. It has lowered the age of conscription to 25, and throughout communities large billboards tower over roads, urging citizens to sign up for different military units.

Representatives from the military visited the penal colony near Kyiv last month and spoke to the prisoners about the process of signing a military contract and what is waiting for them at the front.

Serhii Druzenko, 23, used to work at a sushi restaurant in Kyiv, but has been in prison for nearly two years after stealing a car and being arrested three days later.

He has less than two years left in his sentence, but is applying to join the military. His younger brother is already fighting somewhere along Ukraine's sprawling frontline.

Druzenko says, within this colony, about 70 per cent of the men are interested in joining, while some are hesitating because of the high  risk of being killed or injured.

Druzenko says the thought of getting a paid military contract is part of the motivation, but so is fighting for his country.

"Someone needs to defend the motherland," he said.

"I want my relatives and people close to me to be safe."

Serhii Druzenko spoke to CBC news from a penal colony on June 12, where he is serving time for stealing a car belonging to a customer visiting the sushi restaurant he worked in.
Serhii Druzenko, 23, has less than two years left on a car theft sentence, but is also applying to join the military. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)