Brittney Griner fears facing inhumane treatment at Russia's penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease is rampant, and labor is forced



Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner is escorted from the court room following her Russian trial.

  • The WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison after customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February.
  • Griner's appeal has been denied, and if she's not included in a prisoner swap between the US and Russia soon, the WNBA All-Star will have to serve her sentence at a penal colony.
  • Her lawyers announced Wednesday that Griner has been moved and is heading to an undisclosed penal colony.
  • Here's what we know about Russian penal colonies and what Griner's experience could look like.
Brittney Griner is one of the most accomplished basketball players on the planet.

Brittney Griner.
A 6-foot-9 superstar for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner is an eight-time WNBA All-Star,
a two-time scoring champion, a two-time defensive player of the year, and a WNBA champion.

Brittney Griner.
She's also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.

When she's not competing in the WNBA or for Team USA, Griner takes her talents overseas to supplement her income.

Brittney Griner and UMMC Ekaterinburg celebrate winning the EuroLeague.

How low WNBA salaries led to an American basketball superstar's detainment in Russia

Each year since 2014 — just her second out of college — Griner has headed to Russia to compete for the European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Griner (right) competes for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

Brittney Griner's Russian team — owned by a Putin-aligned oligarch — is a hot spot for WNBA superstars

The 2021-22 WNBA off-season was no exception; Griner was on her way to Ekaterinburg, in the Ural region, in February when she was stopped at a Moscow airport.

Brittney Griner.
Russian customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in the WNBA star's luggage and subsequently detained her.

Brittney Griner.
Nearly six months later, Griner was convicted of drug smuggling "with criminal intent" and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.

Brittney Griner
Griner.

Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison after guilty verdict on drug charges

Her legal team subsequently appealed the decision, but the move was never expected to free her or even reduce her sentence.

Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner appealed her 9-year Russian prison sentence, but the move is unlikely to free the WNBA star

And, in late October, her appeal was officially rejected.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner lost her appeal and will now begin a 9-year sentence in one of Russia's infamous penal colonies

Unless she's released in a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia, Griner will almost certainly spend some time at a Russian penal colony.

Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner's freedom could hinge on an unorthodox prisoner exchange involving an ex-US Marine and a notorious Russian arms dealer

Russian penal colonies are prison-labor camps that are essentially the remnants of the Soviet Union's infamous Gulag system.

Russian penal colony.
Griner will likely report to one of the 35 or so all-women penal colonies in the country.

Brittney Griner
Griner.

Source: People

Each facility varies in its reputation and treatment of inmates based on its geographic location and leadership structure.

Russian women's prison.
Some, like prison colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.

Russia's penal colony in Moldovia.
Inmates there have been said to live among rats, lose fingers while working 17-hour days at sewing machines, and be forced to watch guards burn kittens alive.

Russian prisoners work on sewing machines.

Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

While other facilities aren't known to be quite as harsh, there are several disturbing commonalities across the penal system.

Russian penal colony.
Dilapidated infrastructure has been known to limit access to running water and heat, especially in more remote locations.

Russian penal colony.

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

Prisoner hygiene is often neglected as a result.

Russian prisoner washes her hands with water from a pot.
The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in close quarters with about 50 other people.

Russian penal colony barracks.

Source: People

Russian law dictates that each inmate have 20 square feet of personal space, but that standard — which is less than the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights — is often not met in Russian facilities.

Russian prison barracks.

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

Between prisoners' proximity to one another and a lack of basic hygiene, penal colonies in Russia are known as incubators for epidemics.

Russian penal colony.
AIDS, tuberculosis, COVID-19, and other ailments run rampant.

An inmate is evaluated at a Russian prison hospital.

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies, Puzzle

And women in the system are often denied medical care altogether — never mind proper medical care.

Patients in a Russian hospital.

Source: Riddle

Despite criticism that the system resembled Joseph Stalin's Gulags, the Russian government reintroduced forced labor in 2016.

Forced labor at a Russian penal colony.

Source: VOA News

Most women cook, clean, or sew to fulfill this requirement.

A prison cook prepares food.
Past inmates in all-female Russian penal colonies have said that "voluntary" overtime work is actually mandatory, with guards threatening retribution if they don't sign on to work extra.

Forced labor at a Russian prison camp.

Source: Riddle

As a result, some women are forced to work 16- or 17-hour days, with just four hours of sleep each night.

Russian inmates work planting cabbage.

Source: Riddle

Torture is not unheard of at these facilities.

Russian penal colony guard.

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

And when it comes to abuse, "even official statistics indicate that it is practiced on a mass scale," according to a commentary piece from the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Russian penal colony.
But it's possible Griner will have a less harrowing experience — that is, if she winds up going to a penal colony at all.

Brittney Griner.
If Griner is "sent to a colony with a lenient governor" — as Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russia department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee, told People — she may be allowed "to coach basketball in the daytime rather than being a seamstress."

Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson.
Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson.

Source: People

People also reported that such a move was not unprecedented, as Russian soccer players Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached prisoners during their sentences at a colony.

Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev.

Source: People

Melnikov also told People that inmates typically received "half an hour to two hours a day" for free time, with which they can "chat with each other, read a book from the library, write letters home, play sports, play board games, and call friends and family."

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.
Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.

Source: People

But even accounting for Griner's chance at relative normality inside the penal colony, her experience there will undoubtedly be challenging.

Brittney Griner.
And, as her detention drags on, she's grown increasingly fearful of the "miserable or inhumane conditions" she could face, her lawyer told The New York Times.

Brittney Griner.

Source: The New York Times

Griner's wife, Cherelle, publicly expressed concerns about Griner's seemingly deteriorating mental health after they shared an extremely "disturbing conversation" over the phone.

Cherelle Griner.

Source: CBS News

But, unfortunately, all Cherelle, the Griner family, and those supporting the superstar can do now is hope that a prisoner swap between the US and Russia comes to fruition.

Brittney Griner.

Biden administration reportedly offered convicted arms trafficker in exchange for the release of Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia

Read the original article on Insider



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