Brittney Griner is set to serve time in one of Russia's penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease is rampant, and labor is forced




Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  
  • WNBA superstar 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 legal team has appealed the decision, but if her conviction is not overturned and she's not included in a prisoner swap between the US and Russia, the eight-time WNBA All-Star will serve her sentence at a penal colony.

  • Direct descendants of the Soviet Union's infamous Gulag system, Russian penal colonies are prison labor camps known as disease incubators, human rights abuses run rampant.

  • 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.
Brittney Griner.  

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.

Brittney Griner.
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 USA Basketball, Griner takes her talents overseas to supplement her income.

Brittney Griner and UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Brittney Griner and UMMC Ekaterinburg.  

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 European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Griner (right) competes for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.
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 the Ural city in February when she was stopped at a Moscow airport.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  

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

Brittney Griner.
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
Brittney Griner  

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

Her legal team has since appealed the decision, but the move is unlikely to grant her freedom or even reduce her sentence.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  

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

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

Brittney Griner.
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.
Russian penal colony.  

Griner will be sent to one of the 35 or so all-women penal colonies in the country.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner  

Source: People

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

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov
AP Photo/Yuri Tutov  

Some, like prison colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images
MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images  

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.

Reuters
Reuters  

Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

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

Russian penal colony.
Russian penal colony.  

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

AP Photo/Laura Mills
AP Photo/Laura Mills  

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

Prisoner hygiene is often neglected as a result.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin  

The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in close quarters alongside approximately 50 other people.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov
AP Photo/Yuri Tutov  

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.
Russian prison barracks.  

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

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

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov
AP Photo/Yuri Tutov  

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

Russian Federal Penitentiary Service via AP
Russian Federal Penitentiary Service via AP  

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies, Puzzle

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

AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv
AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv  

Source: Riddle

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

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin  

Source: VOA News

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

A prison cook prepares food.
A prison cook prepares food.  

And 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.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin  

Source: Riddle

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

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin  

Source: Riddle

Torture is not unheard of at these facilities.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov  

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 commentary piece from the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Russian penal colony.
Russian penal colony.  

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

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  

If Griner is "sent to a colony with a lenient governor," Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russian 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
Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson.  

Source: People

People also reported that such a move is not unprecedented, as "Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached inmates while they served time in one of the colonies."

Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images  

Source: People

Melnikov also told People that inmates typically receive "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 normalcy inside the penal colony, her experience there will undoubtedly be challenging.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  

In the meantime, she and those supporting her can only hope that a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia comes to fruition.

Brittney Griner.
Brittney Griner.  

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

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