Brittney Griner fears inhumane treatment in Russia’s penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease rampant and forced labor

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Brittney Griner is escorted out of the courtroom after her trial in Russia.Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

  • 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.

Britney Griner.

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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.

Britney Griner.

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

She also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

Britney Griner.

Britney Griner.AP Photo/Eric Gay

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

Brittney Griner and UMMC Ekaterinburg celebrate their EuroLeague victory.

REUTERS/Murad Sezer

How the WNBA’s low salaries led to the detention of an American basketball superstar in Russia

Every year since 2014 — just his second out of college — Griner has traveled to Russia to compete for European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.

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

BSR/Getty Images Agency

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.

Britney Griner.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

Russian customs officers found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in the WNBA star’s luggage and subsequently detained her.

Britney Griner.

Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

Nearly six months later, Griner was convicted of drug trafficking “with criminal intent” and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.

Britney Griner

Grind.AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

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.

Britney Griner.

Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

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.

Britney Griner.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

Brittney Griner’s freedom may hinge on an unorthodox prisoner swap involving a former US Marine and a notorious Russian arms dealer

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

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Griner will likely report to one of approximately 35 women’s penal colonies nationwide.

Britney Griner

Grind.PA

Source: People

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

Prison for Russian women.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Some, like Penal Colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.

Russian penal colony in Moldova.

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Russian prisoners work on sewing machines.

Reuters

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.

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Dilapidated infrastructure is known to limit access to running water and heating, especially in the most remote places.

Russian penal colony.

AP Photo/Laura Mills

Source: Oriental Studies Center

As a result, prisoner hygiene is often neglected.

Russian prisoner washes his hands with water from a jug.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in cramped quarters with around 50 other people.

Barracks of the Russian penal colony.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Source: 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.

Russian prison barracks.

LIFE.RU/Handout via REUTERS TV

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.

Russian penal colony.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

AIDS, tuberculosis, COVID-19 and other diseases are rampant.

An inmate is assessed at a Russian prison hospital.

Russian Federal Prison Service via AP

Source: Center for Oriental Studies, Puzzle

And women in the system are often denied medical care – let alone proper medical care.

Patients in a Russian hospital.

AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv

Source: Screen

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

Forced labor in a Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: VOA News

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

A prison cook prepares the food.

Vannessa Jimenez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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.

Forced labor in a Russian prison camp.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: Screen

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

Russian prisoners plant cabbage.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: Screen

Torture is not unknown in these facilities.

Guard of the Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

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.

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

But it’s possible Griner will have a less harrowing experience — that is, if she ends up going to a penal colony.

Britney Griner.

Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

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.”

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

Brittney Griner (left) shoots fellow WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Source: People

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.

Russian footballers Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev.

Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Source: People

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.”

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Source: People

But even taking into account Griner’s chance at relative normalcy inside the penal colony, his experience there will no doubt be difficult.

Britney Griner.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

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.

Britney Griner.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

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.

Cherelle Griner.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Britney Griner.

Alexander Zemlianitchenko/Pool/Reuters

Biden administration reportedly offered convicted arms dealer in exchange for freeing Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia

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