‘Welcome to Hell:’ Inside Russian penal colonies where Brittney Griner was taken

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

American basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was sent to a penal colony in Russia to serve her sentence after being convicted on drug charges, Reuters reported.

Griner, who played basketball for a Russian team during the off season in the U.S., was arrested in February at Moscow airport with vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage, BBC reported. She was sentenced in August to nine years in a penal colony for deliberately smuggling drugs and lost her appeal in late October.

During her trial and appeal, the former star at Baylor University was being held at a detention center in Moscow, but she was transferred to an unknown location on Nov. 4, Reuters reported. Griner’s lawyers announced on Thursday, Nov. 17 that she was serving her sentence at Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Yavas, Mordovia.

Most of Russia’s prisons are penal colonies where prisoners live in barracks, not cells, and are often put to work under harsh conditions, according to a 2019 report by the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland.

What are conditions like in a Russian penal colony?

Conditions in Russian penal colonies “varied but were often harsh and life threatening,” the U.S. State Department said in a 2021 report. “Overcrowding, abuse by guards and inmates, limited access to health care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were common in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.”

“Overcrowding, ventilation, heating, sanitation, and nutritional standards varied among facilities but generally were poor,” the 2021 report said.

Forced labor is allowed and “compulsory” as a penal sentence in Russia, the Centre for Eastern Studies reported. Prisoners are often paid a low salary, the centre said, with human rights groups estimating salaries in manufacturing plants range from $6 to $80 monthly.

Griner’s salary in 2020-21 with the WBNA’s Phoenix Mercury was $221,450, according to spotrac.

Female prisoners typically work at sewing clothes, such as army, police, or prison service uniforms, BBC reported.

Olga Podoplelova of the organization Russia Behind Bars told BBC that female inmates “work from 12 to 16 hours a day with lunch and toilet breaks. Daily quotas are set very high, but one official salary is normally shared by several inmates… administration controls everything and there’s plenty of ways of turning an inmate’s life into hell.”

What about conditions inside penal colony IK-2 in Mordovia?

Not much has been reported about conditions in the penal colony where Griner will live, however, former prisoners have spoken about life inside other penal colonies in Mordovia.

The Republic of Mordovia is a region about 325 miles southeast of Moscow but still in western Russia. Mordovia has a “large number of penal colonies within a relatively small territory,” according to a 2019 report by the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland. In some parts of the region, work done by penal colony prisoners “accounts for a major portion of the local labor market.”

Russia has long used penal colonies in Mordovia for foreign prisoners, according to 1996 archive footage and reports from the Associated Press.

Former prisoners from Mordovia’s women’s penal colony IK-14 told Radio Free Europe about their experiences in 2019.

“As the inmates say, ‘If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time,’’ Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a Russian political activist who served time in IK-14 in 2013, told Radio Free Europe. After her release, Tolokonnikova publicly complained about the “slave-labor conditions” she experienced.

Veronika Krass, another former inmate of IK-14, told Radio Free Europe that “at the entrance to IK-14 there is a sign: ‘Welcome To Hell.’ When someone enters the colony, there’s a lineup in the yard. Everyone yells, ‘Fresh meat has arrived.’”

Former Mordovia inmate Irina Noskova told Russia’s New Times in 2013 that “I worked as a seamstress and there is a law: if you do not fulfill the production rate, you are beaten,” BBC reported.

Former U.S. Marine Trevor Rowdy Reed was released from a penal colony in Mordovia in a prisoner swap in April 2022, the New York Post reported. Trevor Reed has not shared his experience, but his father, Joey Reed, spoke to the outlet about it.

““You gotta understand, the labor camps in Mordovia, these are pre-Stalin-era prisons, these were literally referred to as gulags,” Joey Reed told the New York Post. “To a certain extent, you’re starved just by the food that they give you. We didn’t show any public photos of my son for about a month and a half because he looked like a concentration camp victim.”

What do we know about Griner’s current state?

Griner’s lawyers told Reuters that “Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment.”

The U.S. State Department told Reuters that “We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team. However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest.”

Sports columnist and author John Feinstein tweeted on Nov. 9 that “I have no doubt that President Biden is trying, but something has to be done about Britney Griner. This is beyond criminal and tragic.”

ESPN sports reporter and commentator Holly Rowe tweeted on Nov. 9 saying, “Don’t ever forget Brittney Griner⁩ is a Russian Champion. What they are doing to her in a country where she is a celebrity-a country she played in and represented well is unconscionable. I hope no athlete ever competes in Russia again. This is unacceptable.”

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