WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison after customs officers found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February.
Griner’s team appealed the decision, but if she’s not included in a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia, the WNBA All-Star will likely serve her time in a penal colony.
As her detention drags on, Griner grows increasingly fearful of the “wretched or inhumane conditions” she could face if and when her appeal is denied, her lawyer told The New York Times.
Here’s what we know about Russian penal colonies and what Griner’s experience might look like.
Brittney Griner is one of the most accomplished basketball players on the planet.
A 6-foot-9 superstar for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner is an eight-time WNBA All-Star, two-time scoring champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and WNBA champion.
She also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.
When not competing in the WNBA or Team USA, Griner takes her talents overseas to supplement her income.
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Every year since 2014 — just his second out of college — Griner has traveled to Russia to compete for European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Brittney Griner’s Russian team – owned by a Putin-aligned oligarch – is a hot spot for WNBA superstars
The 2021-22 WNBA offseason was no exception; Griner was on her way to Yekaterinburg, in the Urals region, in February when she was arrested at a Moscow airport.
Russian customs officers found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in the WNBA star’s luggage and subsequently detained her.
Nearly six months later, Griner was convicted of drug trafficking “with criminal intent” and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.
Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison after a guilty verdict for drug trafficking
Her legal team later appealed the decision, but the move is unlikely to free her or even reduce her sentence.
Brittney Griner has appealed her 9-year prison sentence in Russia, but the decision is unlikely to free the WNBA star
Unless she is freed in a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia, Griner will almost certainly spend time in a Russian penal colony.
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Russian penal colonies are penal labor camps that are essentially remnants of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag system.
Griner will likely report to one of approximately 35 women’s penal colonies nationwide.
Each facility varies in its reputation and treatment of inmates based on its geographic location and leadership structure.
Some, like Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.
Inmates were said to live among rats, lose fingers working 17-hour days on sewing machines and were forced to watch guards burn kittens alive.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Although other institutions are not known to be so harsh, there are several disturbing commonalities in the penal system.
Dilapidated infrastructure is known to limit access to running water and heating, especially in the most remote places.
Source: Oriental Studies Center
As a result, prisoner hygiene is often neglected.
The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in cramped quarters with around 50 other people.
Russian law stipulates that each prisoner has 20 square feet of personal space, but this standard – which falls short of the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights – is often not respected in Russian institutions.
Source: Oriental Studies Center
Between the proximity of prisoners to each other and the lack of basic hygiene, penal colonies in Russia are known as incubators of epidemics.
AIDS, tuberculosis, COVID-19 and other diseases are rampant.
Source: Center for Oriental Studies, Puzzle
And women in the system are often denied medical care – let alone proper medical care.
Despite criticism that the system resembled Joseph Stalin’s gulags, the Russian government reintroduced forced labor in 2016.
Source: VOA News
Most women cook, clean or sew to meet this requirement.
Former inmates in all-female Russian penal colonies have said “voluntary” overtime was in fact compulsory, with guards threatening reprisals if they did not agree to work overtime.
As a result, some women are forced to work 16 or 17 hour days, with only four hours of sleep each night.
Torture is not unknown in these facilities.
Source: Oriental Studies Center
And when it comes to abuse, “even official statistics indicate it is happening on a massive scale,” according to a comment from the Center for Eastern Studies.
But it’s possible Griner will have a less harrowing experience — that is, if she ends up going to a penal colony.
If Griner is “sent to a colony with a lenient governor” — as Ivan Melnikov, the vice chairman of the International Human Rights Committee’s Russian department, told People — she could be allowed “to coaching basketball during the day rather than being a seamstress.”
People also reported that such a move was not unprecedented, as Russian football players Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached prisoners during their time in a colony.
Melnikov also told People that inmates were usually given “half an hour to two hours a day” of free time, with which they could “talk to each other, read a book from the library, write letters home, do sports, playing board games, and calling friends and family.”
But even taking into account Griner’s chance at relative normalcy inside the penal colony, his experience there will no doubt be difficult.
And, as her detention drags on, she grows increasingly fearful of the “wretched or inhumane conditions” she could face if and when her appeal is denied, her lawyer told The New York Times.
Source: The New York Times
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has publicly expressed concern about Griner’s apparent deterioration in mental health after he shared an “extremely disturbing conversation” over the phone.
Source: CBS News
But, sadly, all Cherelle, the Griner family and those who support the superstar can do now is hope that a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia comes to fruition.
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