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JUST IN: Ukraine’s convicts to Join the fight against Russia in exchange for realease.

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AP

At a rural penal colony in southeast Ukraine, several convicts stand assembled under barbed wire to hear an army recruiter offer them a shot at parole. In return, they must join the grueling fight against Russia.

“You can put an end to this and start a new life,” said the recruiter, a member of a volunteer assault battalion. “The main thing is your will, because you are going to defend the motherland. You won’t succeed at 50%, you have to give 100% of yourself, even 150%.”

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Prisoners listen to a Ukrainian sergeant of the Battalion Arey during an interview in a prison, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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Prisoners speak to Ukrainian servicemen during an interview in a prison, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Ukraine is expanding the draft to cope with acute battlefield shortages more than two years into fighting against Russia’s full-scale invasion. And its recruiting efforts have turned, for the first time, to the country’s prison population.

Although Ukraine does not announce any details of troop deployment numbers or casualties, frontline commanders openly acknowledge that they are facing serious manpower problems as Russian continues to build up forces in eastern Ukraine and make incremental gains westward.

More than 3,000 prisoners already have been released on parole and assigned to military units after such recruitment was approved by parliament in a controversial mobilization bill last month, Ukrainian Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska told The Associated Press.

About 27,000 inmates could potentially be eligible for the new program, according to Justice Ministry estimates.

“A lot of the motivation comes from (inmates) wanting to return home a hero, and not to return home from prison,” Vysotska said.

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A Ukrainian military instructor of Arey Battalion trains a convict prisoner which join Ukrainian army to use a weapon at the polygon, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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Prisoners wait in line for lunch in a prison, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Friday, June 21, 2024.(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
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Convict prisoners which join Ukrainian army train at the polygon, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
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Convict prisoners who have joined the Ukrainian army train at the polygon, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Ernest Volvach, 27, wants to take up the offer. He’s serving a two-year sentence for robbery, at the penal colony in Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region. He works in the kitchen, ladling dollops of food into tin bowls.

“It’s stupid to sit here doing nothing,” Volvach said, adding that since the start of the war he’s wanted to “do something for Ukraine” and have the opportunity to enlist. “Now it’s appeared.”

Ukrainian soldiers on active duty are typically identified only by their first name, or a call sign, for security reasons. Many of the inmates at the Dnipropetrovsk penal colony also asked to be identified only by their first names to avoid difficulties if they enlist.

Another inmate, 30, who gave his name only as Volodymyr, makes rivets at a penal colony workshop. He said he plans to volunteer after his sentence ends in one year, but wouldn’t do so now because there’s effectively no home leave under the parole program.

Prisoners can get the conditional release after an interview, medical exam, and a review of their conviction. Those convicted of rape, sexual assault, murdering two or more people or crimes against Ukraine’s national security aren’t eligible.

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Prisoners stand in line for an interview with representatives of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in a prison, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Friday, June 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Ukrainian officials are keen to draw a distinction between their program and recruitment in Russia of convicts to serve in the notorious Wagner mercenary group. Those fighters typically have been funneled to the deadliest battles, the officials say, but the Ukrainian program aims to integrate the inmates into regular Ukrainian frontline units.

The country has a prison population of some 42,000, according to figures forwarded by the government to the European Union.

While recent reforms have reduced the number of prisoners and are credited with improving conditions at some facilities, the U.S. State Department noted credible reports of “degrading treatment or punishment” by prison authorities in its annual report on human rights last year.

After screening, paroled inmates are rushed to basic training at camps where they learn how to handle weapons and other combat fundamentals. Training is completed later once they join the individual units.

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A Ukrainian military instructor of Arey Battalion demonstrates to convict prisoners who have joined the Ukrainian army how to use a grenade luncher on a rifle during training at the polygon, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
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A Ukrainian military instructor of Arey Battalion checks weapons of convict prisoners who have joined the Ukrainian army during training at the polygon, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
Paroled inmate Mykhailo joined an assault course and said it was hard to keep up with the physical demands after months of relative inactivity in prison – clambering in and out of armed personnel carriers and running through obstacle courses.

“I decided to sign up for the Ukrainian Volunteer Army because I have a family at home, children, parents,” the 29-year-old said, speaking over the noise of gunfire at a shooting range. “I will be more useful in the war.”

Vysotska, the deputy justice minister, said interest in the military parole program has exceeded early expectations, and that it could provide as many as 5,000 new recruits. “That would definitely help,” she said.

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