The head of Russia's prison service has come up with a novel plan to keep tens of thousands of inmates busy by sending them to work for the country's largest oil producer, Rosneft, and aluminum smelter Norisky Nickel.

ENERGY EXPLORED: SUBSCRIBE TO ACCELERATE

Gain valuable insight into the global oil and gas industry's energy transition from ACCELERATE, the free weekly newsletter from Upstream and Recharge. Sign up here today.

According to Russian Penitentiary Service chairman Alexander Kalashnikov, around 188,000 prisoners have the legal right to apply to authorities to replace their current prison term with, as he said, a "forced labour assignment".

Reports in Moscow claim that Kalashnikov identified Rosneft and Norisky Nickel after Russian state-controlled lender Sberbank last year employed dozens of prisoners in a pilot scheme.

Sberbank put the inmates to work in dedicated centres that do not have access to the bank’s internal network or the internet, in exchange for a minimal wage.

Arguing his case, Kalashnikov claimed that many prisoners who can apply to make the switch have a better education and work experience than millions of young migrants coming to seek work in Russia from former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Large Russian building contractors that work for the likes of Rosneft or Russian state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom traditionally rely on employing such migrants at major projects.

Kalashnikov’s plan has already won the backing of Russia's Justice Ministry and the powerful Investigative Committee, according to reports in Moscow.

Fears that the plan could effectively spell a return of the gulags — the infamous Soviet-era prison camps — were addressed by a human rights ombudsman who told Moscow business daily RBK that Russia is a “completely different country” today compared to what it was under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Kalashnikov has not mentioned whether prominent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was thrown into a prison cell in January following his return to the country, has the right to seek work at Rosneft.

But if even he has, the outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be welcomed at the oil giant.

Before stepping into politics, Navalny sometimes attended general meetings of Rosneft shareholders to probe chairman Igor Sechin on some of the company's more opaque transactions.