Brittney Griner is being transported to one of Russia’s notorious penal colonies, according to a statement made Wednesday by her attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov. The pair said they do not know her exact whereabouts and they will only be notified, alongside the U.S Embassy, once she arrives. This process could take up to two weeks. For now, Griner is unreachable.
The 32-year-old U.S basketball titan and Olympic gold medalist was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after she was arrested at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17 for possession of two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. Griner pleaded guilty to what she called an “honest mistake” and was convicted in August but her appeal against the sentence was denied in October.
U.S. officials met Griner last week, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she was doing “as well as can be expected under the circumstances.” On Wednesday, Jean-Pierre issued a statement that the administration is working “tirelessly” to secure her release through a potential prisoner exchange, and called on Russia to improve the conditions she will be subjected to.
This uncertainty is a deliberate part of the punishment process, says postdoctoral researcher Olga Zeveleva, whose work at the University of Helsinki is focused on the construction of race and ethnicity in Russian prisons.
“You’re in this state of limbo between one detention institution and another, and your lawyers and your relatives don’t really know where you are,” she says. This drawn-out transfer process is known as etap in Russia and it sees prisoners travel a great distance to a penal colony—sometimes taking the train and stopping at detention centers along the way.
Here’s what to know about the history and conditions of Russia’s penal colonies.
What is a penal colony?
Penal colonies are the most common institutions for Russia’s recorded population of 467,000 prisoners once they are transferred from a detention center.
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The colonies have earned a reputation for their brutality. Russia is currently home to 642 corrective colonies, as well as 18 juvenile colonies and eight prisons—which Zeveleva says have an architectural distinction to colonies as they impose restricted movement and tougher security measures.
What does a typical day in a colony look like?
A typical day in a colony differs depending on the specific institution a prisoner is in, but they consistently have an extensive record of human rights violations including torture, poor hygiene, and low quality medical assistance.
Experts also say there is a distinction between men and women’s penal colonies. “Women’s penal colonies are usually run more strictly by the penal administrations, and they’re more regime-type prisons where a day is very rigidly structured,” Zeveleva says of the type of institution Griner will be held, noting that men’s colonies are more likely to be run by local crime bosses or gangs.
In women’s colonies there is also an expectation for prisoners to carry out daily cleaning tasks in the vicinity, as well as textile and sewing work. While textile work might be paid, these earnings often go towards any fines incurred by the prisoner as a result of their criminal record. Griner was fined 1 million rubles (a current value of $14,334) when she was charged with drug possession and smuggling.
What is the history of penal colonies in Russia?
Due to unsuccessful attempts at legal reform after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the present-day Russian prison system has inherited many features of the Soviet system of Gulag camps or hard labor camps. These features included a collectivist approach to rehabilitation, penal labor, and exile to remote locations.
“Many of Russia’s prisons are geographically and architecturally related to those camps. They’re the same structures that were built in Soviet times, and they’re located in the same parts of Russia,” Zeveleva says. Penal colonies are located in remote locations hundreds of miles from any nearby cities, making it hard for prisoners to receive visitation and connect with human rights workers.
The often torturous reality of life in the penal colonies is made possible by how far removed they are from Russian society and global attention. “These kinds of architectural and infrastructural legacies bring about all sorts of problems for people who are imprisoned in society today,” Zeveleva adds.
Why was Griner’s team dreading this move?
In a statement on Tuesday, Griner’s agents said their priority is her “health and well-being.”
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the frontwoman of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist protest and performance art group, recalled the brutal conditions she faced as a result of a 2012 conviction for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” Tolokonnikova said she was subjected to 16-hour work days in a colony sewing shop as well as negligent hygiene rooms with faulty plumbing.
For Griner, a gay Black women, there are fears that she will incur more violence than some of the other inmates. According to a 2021 human rights report by the U.S. Department of State, violations in the colonies consisted of extrajudicial killings-including of LGBTQ+ persons-enforced disappearances, and pervasive torture that could result in death or sexual violence.
Additionally, Chechen prisoner Salman Mukayev was reportedly suffocated and electrocuted for hours on suspicion of being gay in 2020.
Despite these instances, Zeveleva believes Griner’s case is so high profile that she will have a complex experience in the colonies.
“I would say it’s not very likely that she’ll run into a lot physical abuse or torture that we hear about in the news, which isn’t to say that she’ll have an easy experience by any means,” Zeveleva says. “In Russia, race, ethnicity, and class intersect in very different ways and my assumption would be that Griner will be perceived, first and foremost, as an American prisoner from a developed country, who has a very high profile in the media and is really quite famous. I think those themes in her identity will probably stand out the most.”
Ultimately, experts such as Zeveleva don’t know how Griner’s remote location will affect U.S efforts to engage in a prisoner swap.
“I’m not sure what the political calculations here are. I say that because I’m actually quite surprised that she has reached this stage and is being sent to a penal colony,” Zeveleva says.
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