Brittney Griner’s Fate in the Russian Penal Colony Is Bleak

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WNBA star, Brittney Griner, has been moved to a Russian penal colony to serve her nine-year sentence for drug smuggling. 

Griner was found with 0.04 oz (less than a gram) of hashish oil and canisters at a Moscow airport. She had arrived in Russia to play in the Russian women’s professional basketball league. In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in a penal colony. 

Former prisoners who spent time in Russian penal colonies have described their experiences and the horrible conditions in the Russian facilities, including extreme isolation, bad food, forced labor and authoritarian wardens.

A US citizen, Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, spent nearly two years in a Russian prison, He was freed earlier this year in exchange for a Russian prisoner serving a 20-year sentence in the US for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into New York worth $100 million.

In 2019, Reed was accused of assaulting two Russian police officers and was put in a detention center in Moscow and awaited trial for almost a year. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced him to nine years in prison, and he was transported to a penal colony in Moldova where he remained for nine months before being returned to the US.

In an interview with reporters, Trevor Reed described the penal colonies as hell. He said that he would often curl up near the hot water pipes in his cell or layer all his clothes most nights because of the cold Moldovan weather.

Trevor’s father said that his son was able to survive the bad conditions in the prison because the guards did not abuse or assault him. They knew that he might be used for a prisoner swap. Even though the guards did not beat him, Trevor lost about 50 pounds because of the horrible food and conditions.

Trevor Reed went on two hunger strikes, protesting against being barred from calling his family and not receiving proper medical care.

A US State Department report shows that other inmates have not been as lucky as Reed, and the torture in the penal colonies can lead to suicide or death. The penal colonies are full of life-threatening human rights violations, including overcrowding, assaults by guards and fellow inmates, no health care access, and poor sanitary conditions.

Negotiations have been underway between Russian authorities and the US State Department, in the hope that a prisoner swap can occur and bring Griner home. 

Daniel Balson, the USA advocacy director for Amnesty International in Europe and Central Asia, said that Russian penal colonies were among the cruelest, most inhumane, and most degrading places in the world.

Brittney Griner will face harsh conditions in the penal colony if she serves her nine-year sentence. If the Biden administration does not successfully intervene on her behalf, Griner will finish her sentence in 2031 at the age of 40. The psychological torture of the prison system will likely have repercussions for years after. 

Marvin Makinen, a US citizen that spent time in a Russian prison said it took him decades to recover from his experience. He was arrested and charged with spying in 1961. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and spent two years at the Vladimir Prison. He lost 55 pounds during his 28-month imprisonment. He said he had several instances of solitary confinement before his release in 1963 in a prisoner swap.

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