Brittney Griner now in Russian penal colony

Screenshot from Russian television.

Brittney Griner, who is now detained in the IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia, 350 miles from Moscow, is in the middle of nowhere with no new court dates set. A victim of hostage diplomacy, as well as racism and homophobia both in Russia and in the U.S., Griner’s very life is now at risk due to the dangerous conditions of Russian penal colonies, especially for a Black lesbian.

At this writing, it’s been 286 days since Griner was wrongfully detained by Russia. On August 4, she was convicted of drug smuggling — a bogus charge the U.S. State Department always refuted.

On October 18, Brittney Griner turned 32 in a Russian prison. In a statement to her fans and supporters shared that day by her attorneys, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, Griner said, “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.” 

One week later, on Oct. 25, Griner lost her appeal of the harsh sentence of nine years plus six months time served. The time that Griner is out of the public eye and solely in the hands of the notoriously harsh Russian penal system is getting longer with no apparent end in sight.

PGN has been reporting on Griner’s case since her wrongful detention was first made public on March 5. Despite her years working as a champion player for a Russian team, Griner has faced gross homophobia in depictions in the Russian media. 

PGN has been in weekly contact with the U.S. State Department as her case dragged on. On November 30, the State Department told PGN on background, attributable to a State Department spokesperson, that the U.S. offer of a prisoner swap for Griner was still on the table. The spokesperson told PGN, “We have made an offer, have continued to follow up on that offer, and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels.”

While the State Department has avoided using the term “political prisoner” to describe Griner, there’s no question that she is one. From the day she was first detained on February 17 on charges the U.S. government has always maintained were wrongful, the Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion has been a pawn in a diplomatic war between Russian president Vladimir Putin and the U.S. government. Griner is one of the most famous female sports figures in the world and was arrested mere days before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. She was always going to be a bargaining chip for the dictator.

Now, far from the main U.S. embassy in Moscow and incarcerated in gulag-style conditions, Griner’s very life is at risk on a daily basis. The quest for her release should be ratcheted up, not grinding to a halt.

The conditions at the IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia are harsh and dangerous. Penal colonies in Russia are known for their grim conditions, but as a Black lesbian and political prisoner, Griner faces all the worst that they have to offer: homophobia, racism and 16-hour work days with hard labor and little food. It is unlikely Griner will even have a bed long enough to accommodate her 6’9″ frame. 

According to Dave Zirin, writing about the conditions Griner faces for The Nation, prisoners in Mordovia face inhuman conditions and Griner’s medical issues will receive no treatment as medical care is nearly nonexistent. 

A decade ago, Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of the Russian feminist musical group Pussy Riot, was incarcerated in the Mordovia penal colony for two years after her 2012 arrest. Tolokonnikova has spoken out at length about her incarceration, describing it as “torture.” Tolokonnikova, a political prisoner like Griner, has said that the Mordovia penal colony is “hell,” with “beatings and torture” as well as sexual assaults being commonplace.

“I’m terrified that Brittney Griner was moved to IK-2,” Tolokonnikova told MSNBC. “It’s one of the harshest colonies — it is literally the harshest colony in the whole Russian prison system.”

Tolokonnikova described the hard labor conditions as “slave-like,” and said if Griner refuses to do hard labor, she will be sent to solitary confinement.

“A lot of prisoners just cannot stand it and some of them decide to commit suicide,” Tolokonnikova said. “And, let’s say, you’re being tortured and go to prison doctors to document the fact that you’ve been tortured, obviously, they do not see anything and are not witnesses of your torture.”

A Russian prison rights advocate said that Griner being “lesbian, American and Black” puts her in particular danger. This makes her a prime target for harassment in Russian prison, where extremely violent homophobia and racism abound, and where the U.S. is seen as “a mortal enemy.” 

While Griner languishes in Mordovia under these inhumane conditions, the basketball star’s release continues to be a focal point for the State Department. On November 28, in an interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, Elizabeth Rood, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said the U.S. had submitted a serious proposal for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan, to be released. Whelan was arrested in 2018 after being accused of spying and sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. As with Griner, the U.S. maintains that Whelan is wrongfully detained.

Rood said that the Kremlin has not given the U.S. a “serious response” to the offer of a prisoner swap which was first proffered in June.

“She’s very afraid about being left and forgotten in Russia or just completely used to the point of her detriment,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said during an interview last month with CBS’ Gayle King. Cherelle told King, “Because she’s saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more. I feel like my life doesn’t matter. Like, y’all don’t see me? Y’all don’t see the need to get me back home? And just nothing?’ ” 

Other members of Brittney Griner’s support network have tried to maintain an upbeat stance. Lindsay Colas, Griner’s agent, released a statement saying the primary concern is her client’s health and well-being.

Colas says Griner’s family and friends continue to work with the U.S. government in an effort to bring her home.

“We are thankful for everyone’s support, and hope that as we near nine months of detention, that BG and all wrongfully detained Americans will be shown mercy and returned home to their families for the holidays,” Colas said.

The WNBA noted when Griner was moved to Mordovia that “Brittney is doing as well as could be expected. Despite the fact she is alone and now nearing her ninth month in detention separated from her loved ones, she is trying to stay strong.” 

A State Department spokesperson told PGN on Nov. 30, “The Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure Brittney Griner’s release. The President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure.”

Griner is scheduled to be released from custody in 2031.

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