Friday, Jun 09, 2023

Brittney Griner is now at a Russian penal colony. Here’s what we know.

Brittney Griner is now at a Russian penal colony. Here’s what we know.

The basketball superstar has begun serving her term in a system long known for harsh conditions.

We now know where Brittney Griner is.

After a period of uncertainty — common for the transfer of detainees to Russian penal colonies — Griner’s lawyers say their client is now an inmate at the IK-2 women’s penal colony in the small town of Yavas, roughly 340 miles southeast of Moscow.

While her legal team was kept in the dark about Griner’s ultimate destination, Russian Telegram channels had speculated that Griner was being brought to the Yavas facility, as Grid reported last week. According to the Russian prisons’ service website, the IK-2 colony holds up to 820 inmates.

Yavas is one of more than 800 penal colonies in a vast network that dates to the brutal labor camps of the Soviet-era Gulag. The system holds some 467,000 prisoners, according to World Prison Brief. Only 8 percent — roughly 37,000 — are women.

Given the other options, the penal colony at Yavas might be among the best of the myriad bad options for Griner. Many of the other colonies are located in the forbidding climate of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and IK-2 is classed as a “general regime” facility as opposed to the “strict regime” penal colonies in which treatment is believed to be much harsher.

Before her destination was known, experts in the Russian penal system told Grid that Griner’s notoriety and nonpolitical posture might have a positive influence on her treatment in the system.

“I think it is very unlikely that she will be specially pressed or tortured,” Vagan Kasyan, a lawyer and advocate for Russian prisoners, told Grid. “It’s not beneficial for anyone to have her appear bruised in front of journalists who will come to take her picture sooner or later. There is a media interest in her. And moreover, journalists and human rights activists can come there.”

But while Griner’s lawyers said in a statement Thursday that “Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment,” they also added that — even after all she has been through since her detention in February — this is “a very challenging period for her.”

Accounts about the Yavas colony paint a mixed picture in terms of the severity of treatment. While many said that women were treated less harshly than men in the Russian system, a 2017 article in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets described harsh conditions and beatings of unruly prisoners. Former inmates told the paper that they were often at work by 7 a.m.

Kasyan and others described other features of the “general-regime” facilities. These colonies follow a daily routine: Inmates rise at 6 a.m. for morning exercise, breakfast and work and are not permitted to lie on their beds until the evening. Women are typically put to work sewing garments. There are periods of free time, including time to watch television — though many former inmates say Russian state TV is the only media on offer. Lights are turned off at 10 p.m.

Griner is unlikely to have regular interpreters, making regular mail or phone conversations in English problematic, given that censors must review these communications, and the censors do not speak English. Presumably, occasional U.S. consular visits would help in this regard.

Оlga Romanova, founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation, which works on behalf of Russian prisoners, said the typical currency in the penal colonies is cigarettes, rather than Russian rubles or dollars. As Romanova said, “She will need cigarettes just to get around.” Meanwhile, any outside products must be sent from elsewhere in Russia. Again, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow might provide the workaround.

Griner is 32 and one of the greatest players in the history of the Women’s National Basketball Association. She was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February for carrying two vape cartridges containing small amounts of hashish oil. Griner pleaded guilty and apologized repeatedly for what she called an “honest mistake.” In August, she was convicted of trying to smuggle narcotics.

Griner was transferred to Yavas after her appeals were exhausted. A U.S. offer to release a jailed Russian arms smuggler in exchange for Griner’s freedom hasn’t led to a deal.

For women and men, “two different planets”

Experts told Grid that at Yavas and the other penal colonies for women, the atmosphere differs markedly from the facilities for men.

“Male and female colonies are two different planets, that’s how it’s always been,” Romanova told Grid. She said men’s facilities typically function according to the principles of “ponyatiya” — literally, “understandings” — that are strictly and sometimes brutally observed. “It’s a criminal code, like mafia laws, a set of unofficial laws that actually rule and maintain order in the community.”

There is no such system in the women’s penal colonies, Romanova said, a difference that she said brings both advantages and disadvantages. “There are no such concepts in women’s zones, no hierarchy at all. In male prisons, if another inmate starts bullying you for no reason, you can go and seek justice to a kind of criminal boss. In female prisons, there’s no one you can address for help.”

Among the best-known female prisoners in Russia in recent years were members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were jailed in 2012 after leading raucous protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government. One band member, Maria Alyokhina, said there was no hot water or medicine inside the penal colony where she and a bandmate were held.

“It actually is a labor camp because by law all the prisoners should work,” Alyokhina told Reuters. “The quite cynical thing about this work is that prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, almost without salary.”

Alyokhina described the colony as divided between a factory and a “living zone.” In the factory area, inmates sewed garments; her “living zone” was one large room, home to 80 women who shared just three toilets.

As for American women in the Russian penal system, the case of Sarah Krivanek offers a recent case.

Like Griner, Krivanek is an American who was convicted of a crime that had nothing to do with politics. She was an English teacher in Russia, charged with assault in 2021 after attacking her partner with a knife during a domestic dispute. Her partner received light facial injuries; Krivanek claimed she had acted in self-defense.

Krivanek was convicted and held in a penal colony for nearly 11 months before winning her freedom. Last week, Russian authorities said they were holding her for an additional 30 days before her “deportation” to the U.S.

At a hearing, Krivanek said it had “shocked my world” to be sent to the colony, where she was put to work making artificial flowers for cemeteries and mortuaries.

“My colony was really like hell. … It was forced labor,” she said. She also said the only available medical treatment in her colony was pills for headaches.

Romanova said she foresees one particular difficulty for Griner: her sexual orientation.

“Brittney Griner has publicly stated that she is a lesbian, and this will make it very difficult for her,” Romanova told Grid. “The issue is stigmatized, so we know of many cases of bullying. Lesbians are usually given the hardest work. She may be an exception, because she is an American, a public person, she has a lot of attention.”

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