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Brittney Griner: What I Endured in a Russian Prison

17 minute read

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Griner is a six-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist. She is the author of Coming Home, written with Michelle Burford.

Prison is more than a place. It’s also a mindset. When I entered Corrective Colony No. 2—or IK-2, in Mordovia, a region more than 300 miles east of Moscow—I flipped a switch in my head. I’m an inmate now, I told myself. I’ll be here at least nine years. I even rehearsed my release date: Oct. 20, 2031. I knew that might change. Still, focusing on a goal would get me through the nightmare. As deeply as I cared for my wife Relle and my family, I had to seal off that love to some extent. I felt softness would compromise my toughness.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, new inmates at prisons in Russia were initially isolated and tested for various infectious diseases, from TB to hepatitis B. That sequestering became more important with COVID-19, with overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and communal living ensuring rapid spread. I recall spending only one week in quarantine, with five other women. A pin on our uniforms displayed our names and one or more colors, from white and yellow to green and burgundy. The colors gave the guards your story at a glance: aggressive toward staff, suicidal, arsonist, swindler, runaway, on and on. Mine was white, signaling drug-related charges. Around campus I’d spot the rainbow, including black for the most heinous crimes: Murder. Terrorism. Torture.

I got the lay of the land from Ann and Kate, the two inmates in IK-2 with the best English. Kate assisted the deputy warden, whom the inmates called Mother of Dragon—tall, blue camo, 60s, and she breathed fire while waving her baton. Ann brought us cake that night, a perk of being the head cook. Kate gave me the lowdown, starting with rule one. “If a guard stops you,” Ann said, “you have to tell them your crime and release date.” She taught me every word of it in Russian. I practiced but never mastered it.

They also described the grounds and other rules. All prisoners were housed in multilevel buildings called detachments, like a quad. Each was overseen by the most senior inmate in the group. “No handcuffs here,” Ann said. The guards were watching but didn’t escort prisoners through the colony, which revolved around the Yard. On one side was the cafeteria, where three daily meals were served: edible but still distasteful, aside from the honey cake I craved. Behind it was a church, a visitation room, an infirmary, and the market. All could be visited at certain times on weekends. There was also an orphanage for the children of inmates who’d given birth while incarcerated. They could keep their babies there until the children turned 2. Out of view was the hole for troublemakers. “Don’t end up there,” Ann warned. There were stories of women who’d been beaten bloody and then left for weeks in solitary.

Some requirements were like those I experienced in detention before I was sentenced: 6:00 a.m. roll call, 10:00 p.m. lights out, beds tightly made. Three realities were new and awful. One was the bathroom. The second was my job. My building leader was the third. The stripe on her pin gave me chills.

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For seven days I was totally off the grid. My team had been told I’d been transferred from detention but didn’t know when or where. “I have no idea where you are or if you’ll get this letter,” Relle wrote to me. “I’m in shock and disbelief. I wish none of this was happening. We will find you, Babe, I promise.” She’d heard the same stories I had, of inmates crammed in dark and dingy train cars, rattling across Russia for sometimes months. Was I eating, sleeping, or even still alive? My family didn’t know. On the eighth day, one of my lawyers, Maria, finally networked her way to someone who whispered my whereabouts and confirmed them in a letter: “Yes, Brittney Yevette Griner is with us.”

Maria and my other lawyer Alex planned the long journey to see me while I moved into my quad. A short woman with black hair met me at the entrance. Through Ann, she introduced herself as Val, the building leader. Though she greeted me warmly, I knew she was trouble. Ann told me Val had once led a criminal organization, pointing out people to be assassinated. In the outside world that made her dangerous. In prison it earned her respect. She’d been at IK-2 since 2008 and was the warden’s right hand. Prison 101: stay away from inmates in the boss’s pocket. Val made that impossible. She tried to turn me into her bestie.

Our building had three levels. I was on the third. Each floor had 50 women, scattered among three massive bedrooms. My room had 20 inmates. When I entered, they all just stared. No one spoke English, and Val spoke very little. She shooed several women out of her way and directed me to my bed, next to hers. 

The bathroom was a special hell. There was no hot water at IK-2. If you chose to shower—and most didn’t—you heated water in an electric kettle and poured it in your bucket. The shower was a tiny, tiled stall behind a folding screen. I was too big, so I squatted behind the screen, scooped water over my dreads, and tried to get clean. Meanwhile, the restroom buzzed. It was one big open area with four toilets facing each other and six sinks shared by all 50 of us. I saw a lot I didn’t want to see, and the room reeked, as did most of the women. 

The guards allowed building leaders to do mostly as they wanted, so Val hogged the restroom for herself at 5:30, a half-hour before lights on. All others shoved in whenever, allowed 10 minutes max. A week in, Val began insisting I rise early and use the bathroom while she did. She also demanded that her main minion, a sweet woman named Sveta, heat my water for me. I didn’t want to become known as Val’s evil twin, but eventually gave in. I did my best to keep my distance otherwise.

No luck there, because Val was also my boss. We all had different shifts depending on our jobs, but Russian labor camps are called that for a reason. All inmates work 10-, 12-, or 15-hour-or-longer days. We earned a few rubles an hour, around 25¢. It was basically slave labor.

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I worked in sewing, in a factory-like building with row after row of Soviet-era machines. There was no ventilation and little heat. No bathroom breaks. We knew to empty our bladders during the 20-minute lunch break. Each group was given a quota, around 500 military uniforms a day. Teams who failed were berated. A girl near me was sewing so fast she stitched together her fingers, which meant she bled onto the garment and slowed production. Her leader yanked the material from her hand, threw it on the floor, and screamed for her to pick it up and continue. 

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I was too tall to fit at the sewing machines, so Val made up a job for me: clipping threads from buttons using mini scissors, like the kind used to cut nose hairs. The buttons had been freshly sewn onto jackets made of stiff, waterproof material. Once I’d cut off stray threads, I used a damp sponge to wipe off the powder markings the sewers had used as guides then buttoned the jacket from top to bottom. The job sounds simple, but it wasn’t for me, and I had the bruised hands to prove it. The hardest part was standing hunched over a worktable for hours. My knees swelled; my back throbbed. That was my first job. My next would involve a whole new round of danger.

Evenings brought dinner, TV time in the common area, and calls from each floor’s phone room. Val ran that show too. Newcomers in our building got no calls their first year, simply because she said so. Even if she’d let me use the phone, I could’ve called home only with outside permission. I was surrounded by women, but I’d never felt more alone.

Griner arrives at a hearing in Khimki, Russia, on Aug. 2, 2022
Griner arrives at a hearing in Khimki, Russia, on Aug. 2, 2022Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

My lawyers came to visit about a week into my time at IK-2. I was overjoyed to see familiar faces and fought back tears when I saw them. Visitation took place in a small room. I had to get there early so I could be searched. After stripping to my boxers, I dressed and entered a room with a camera above. A guard stood nearby, monitoring our conversations. Alex had to hold up any letters to the divider and have me read them.

They brought news from home. Midterm elections had come and gone, which they felt cleared the path for talk of a trade. My agent Lindz was in constant touch with the White House and the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. “President Biden has made public statements about his commitment to getting you home and he’s at the G-20 this week,” she wrote. “Putin isn’t there but Russian officials are, so there will be conversations.” My lawyers reiterated how much they still believed I’d be freed, though they were saddened by my aggressive nine-year sentence. 

Pops sent Scriptures for me to cling to. Relle tried to lift my spirits with her usual humor. 

Once I’d moved into the quad, Kate and Ann visited when they could, but far less than they had initially. I begged to be in their quad, which was for the best behaved. I was told I’d have to be at IK-2 two years before I could even apply. Ann tried to pull some strings to get me in, but Val’s strings were longer. 

Even from afar, Ann and Kate became my sanity. Kate got me out of my cell on errands while Ann gave me the hookup. Soon after I arrived, she took me to another woman named Sveta. This Sveta was less than 5 feet, with long blond hair, and was the sweetest person you’d ever meet. She was the master seamstress. She took quick measurements and soon delivered two uniforms—one for work, another for weekends, with the purpose of reducing funk—plus an overcoat. She also made me pajamas, mittens, and extra scarves. “How’s my big friend?” I’d joke when I saw her. “How’s my little friend?” she’d reply. She didn’t know English either, but I taught her that phrase. My new uniform at least covered all of me. Still, it’d be no match for a Russian winter.

After three days in sewing, I could hardly stand. “I need to get out of there,” I told Ann. I also wanted to move away from my assassin boss.

On the one hand, Val kissed up to me. On the other, she tried knocking me down to size. One night, she bumped into me, hard. I shoved her to the floor as the other girls stared. She pretended to laugh it off. Me too. I even helped her up from the floor like, My bad. But we both knew it was no accident. 

Ann and I went together to ask the warden if I could do different work. “Tell her she’ll get no special treatment,” he barked.

We next tried our luck with one of the deputy wardens, this tall woman who had played volleyball back in the day. “Her knees and back are killing her,” Ann translated. Feeling desperate, I showed the deputy warden my blistering hands, and she agreed to move me from sewing to fabric cutting.

My new crew was made up of second offenders. It was unheard of for a new inmate to work alongside the vets, who follow their own rules to some degree. It was also unheard of to have a 6-ft.-9 American in a Russian slave camp, so concessions had to be made. My new task was dangerous: I sliced large pieces of fabric using a spinning blade. If we got an order for military jackets, me and another inmate would grab a huge fabric roll, hoist it onto a big table, roll out the amount of fabric needed, clamp it down, and then lower the rotating blade to cut it. After cutting, we’d place a big stencil on each fabric piece and mark it with chalk for the sewing team. Then we’d count the pieces, bundle them, and haul them to the next building. I did the most hauling, carrying two huge bags at a time, one on each shoulder.

Our machine was basically a rusted old table saw with no shield. Several of the 30 women in my group were missing fingers. My partner had a long scar on her face, starting near her eye. Alex had given me a traveler’s dictionary that I took to work. But it had phrases like Where’s the nearest restaurant? rather than How do I keep from killing myself with a blade? I had several close calls.

Shortly after I started my second job, I got sick. When I inhaled, I felt like my breath had frozen in my lungs. My hands were always freezing, my head cold. Our morning exercises were required even in blizzard conditions. The snow that constantly gathered on my head would melt and make my wrap damp. Same with my uniform. Also, we were required to hand-wash our clothes in the bathroom sinks and then air-dry them either on clotheslines outside (they’d freeze) or on the radiators. That was if you could get a spot on one of the few radiators. Val allowed me a place to lay out my wet socks and underwear, but they never got dry. Worse than being cold was being wet and cold.

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And then there was my hair. My dreads had become knotted over the months. At IK-2, they froze together. My iced locs started molding beneath that wrap. They took three days to dry after I showered. During exercise on frigid mornings, I could literally feel a head cold coming on.

At one point the entire prison lost electricity. That temp dropped so fast. It started on a Saturday and lasted three days. I had on every piece of (damp) clothing I owned. Luckily, no fights broke out, and no one tried to escape. The guard dogs were still wide awake. Some inmates took advantage of the cameras being off by hugging up with their girlfriends on other floors.

I tried to warm up by helping Ann cook for the colony. In a field near the kitchen, she and her team made our meals over makeshift campfires. I carried half a cow from the deep freeze to the field. My lawyers had been concerned I’d be given the prison’s toughest jobs because of my size. True. The guards once had me shoveling snow and breaking up ice around a building and were shocked at how quickly I got it done. I wanted the difficult jobs. They took my mind off things.

The physical exertion probably weakened my immune system. That plus my wet hair and uniform and the power outage broke me all the way down. I felt like I was dying. I didn’t get tested for COVID-19. The nurse in the infirmary took my temperature, which was high, and then gave me Theraflu and sent me back to work. My team had connected me with two local attorneys to help with any issues that arose, since Alex and Maria were so far away. They couldn’t do anything legally for me, just checked on me. One dropped off medicine and other supplies. She also visited me while I was sick, just so I could get out of work. I laid my head down on my side of the partition and took a nap.

Around that time I celebrated Thanksgiving alone, jailhouse style. I bought a smoked turkey leg from the market. In my quad’s kitchen, I deboned the turkey and made rice, put both in a bowl, and poured soy sauce over them. I thought about Relle, Mom, and Pops, my whole family gathered in Houston. I ached that I couldn’t be with them.

My locs kept freezing after I recovered. I started thinking about making it through the coming winter and possibly eight more. The damp mop on my head would make that tougher. In late November I decided to cut it off.

Supporters call for Griner’s release at a rally in Phoenix on July 6, 2022
Supporters call for Griner’s release at a rally in Phoenix on July 6, 2022Christian Petersen—Getty Images

You know a Black woman only when you know her hair journey. When I was in elementary school, my mom tried to lay down my hair with thick grease. That lasted two minutes. And getting it combed out on the weekends was an ordeal. A few times my Momma tried to flat iron it. My curls quickly made a comeback.

In high school I wore braids or had my hair pulled back in a giant poof ball. Occasionally, I’d pick it out into a big ’fro, Angela Davis style. Then, at the end of my freshman year at Baylor, I started locking it. Dreads are a commitment—if you don’t like them, you’ve gotta chop off all your hair to start again—so I began slowly. I did two-strand twists in the front, with braids still in the back. From then on I just kept twisting the front with Jamaican beeswax and thinking, I like this. By the time I met Relle, I had a nice full head of locs. I loved how easy they made my life. I didn’t have to think much about my hair. I could just hoop.

After almost 20 years with dreads, I was ready for a change. They were breaking in a few places. If I pulled them, they’d snap off. For two years before my detainment, I’d been going back and forth on whether to cut them. But me and my dreads had history: coming out to Pops, the WNBA draft, my rise at Baylor, my love story with Relle. Together, we’d been through the good, the bad, and the devastating. Now I was facing the sick and frozen. They had to go.

In prison I needed permission to chop my hair. Ann helped me write an application to give to Mother of Dragon, telling her I’d keep getting sick if I kept them. She agreed. There was a salon at the colony. The stylist was Val’s girlfriend, an older lady named Jenya. She had a nice little setup: barber chair, hair tools, pictures of hairstyles on the walls. And she did it all, from perms and buzz cuts to color and curls. Still, when I sat down in her chair, she looked at my dreads like, What do I do with this?

I showed her a picture of my nephew E.J., who had the short fade I wanted. I gestured for her to snip off the locs. A dread at a time, the old me fell to the floor. She then put a guard on her clippers and—bzzzz—raked the vibrating steel over my scalp. I couldn’t see while she cut. I just had to trust her. Later, when she turned me around to the mirror, I thought, Not bad.

Since arriving at IK-2, I’d been frozen, sick, got my hair chopped off. The girl I once was now lay in a heap of dreads on the concrete floor. But the true me, the survivor, remained. I’d always thought of myself as someone who could endure almost anything. At a slave camp in Russia in the dead of winter, I found out just how tough I was.

Adapted from Coming Home by Brittney Griner with Michelle Burford. Copyright © 2024 by Brittney Griner, out in hardcover on May 7 from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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