Brittney Griner is set to serve time in one of Russia’s penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease is rampant, and labor is forced

Brittney Griner is escorted from the court room following her Russian trial. Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters
  • The WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison after customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February.
  • Griner’s team has appealed the decision, but if she’s not included in a prisoner swap between the US and Russia, the WNBA All-Star will likely serve her sentence at a penal colony.
  • Here’s what we know about Russian penal colonies and what Griner’s experience could look like.

Brittney Griner is one of the most accomplished basketball players on the planet.

Brittney Griner. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A 6-foot-9 superstar for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner is an eight-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time scoring champion, a two-time defensive player of the year, and a WNBA champion.

AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

She’s also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

When she’s not competing in the WNBA or for Team USA, Griner takes her talents overseas to supplement her income.

REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Each year since 2014 — just her second out of college — Griner has headed to Russia to compete for the European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.

BSR Agency/Getty Images

The 2021-22 WNBA off-season was no exception; Griner was on her way to Ekaterinburg, in the Ural region, in February when she was stopped at a Moscow airport.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

Russian customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in the WNBA star’s luggage and subsequently detained her.

Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

Nearly six months later, Griner was convicted of drug smuggling “with criminal intent” and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.

Griner. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Her legal team has since appealed the decision, but the move is unlikely to free her or even reduce her sentence.

Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

Unless she’s released in a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia, Griner will almost certainly spend some time at a Russian penal colony.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

Russian penal colonies are prison-labor camps that are essentially the remnants of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag system.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Griner will be sent to one of the 35 or so all-women penal colonies in the country.


Each facility varies in its reputation and treatment of inmates based on its geographic location and leadership structure.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Some, like prison colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images

Inmates there have been said to live among rats, lose fingers while working 17-hour days at sewing machines, and be forced to watch guards burn kittens alive.


While other facilities aren’t known to be quite as harsh, there are several disturbing commonalities across the penal system.

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Dilapidated infrastructure has been known to limit access to running water and heat, especially in more remote locations.

Russian penal colony.
AP Photo/Laura Mills

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies


Prisoner hygiene is often neglected as a result.

Russian prisoner washes her hands with water from a pot.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in close quarters with about 50 other people.

Russian penal colony barracks.
AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Source: People


Russian law dictates that each inmate have 20 square feet of personal space, but that standard — which is less than the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights — is often not met in Russian facilities.

Russian prison barracks.

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies


Between prisoners’ proximity to one another and a lack of basic hygiene, penal colonies in Russia are known as incubators for epidemics.

Russian penal colony.
AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

AIDS, tuberculosis, COVID-19, and other ailments run rampant.

An inmate is evaluated at a Russian prison hospital.
Russian Federal Penitentiary Service via AP

Source: Centre for Eastern StudiesPuzzle


And women in the system are often denied medical care, never mind proper medical care.

Patients in a Russian hospital.
AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv

Source: Riddle


Despite criticism that the system resembled Joseph Stalin’s Gulags, the Russian government reintroduced forced labor in 2016.

Forced labor at a Russian penal colony.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: VOA News


Most women cook, clean, or sew to fulfill this requirement.

A prison cook prepares food.
Vannessa Jimenez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Past inmates in all-female Russian penal colonies have said that “voluntary” overtime work is actually mandatory, with guards threatening retribution if they don’t sign on to work extra.

Forced labor at a Russian prison camp.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin


As a result, some women are forced to work 16- or 17-hour days, with just four hours of sleep each night.

Russian inmates work planting cabbage.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: Riddle


Torture is not unheard of at these facilities.

Russian penal colony guard.
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies


And when it comes to abuse, “even official statistics indicate that it is practiced on a mass scale,” according to a commentary piece from the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Russian penal colony.
REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

But it’s possible Griner will have a less harrowing experience — that is, if she winds up going to a penal colony at all.

Brittney Griner.
Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

If Griner is “sent to a colony with a lenient governor,” Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russia department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee, told People she may be allowed “to coach basketball in the daytime rather than being a seamstress.”

Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson.
Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson. 
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Source: People


People also reported that such a move was not unprecedented, as the Russian soccer players Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached prisoners during their sentences at a colony.

Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev.
Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Source: People


Melnikov also told People that inmates typically received “half an hour to two hours a day” for free time, with which they can “chat with each other, read a book from the library, write letters home, play sports, play board games, and call friends and family.”

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.
Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner. 
Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Source: People


But even accounting for Griner’s chance at relative normality inside the penal colony, her experience there will undoubtedly be challenging.

Brittney Griner.
REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

In the meantime, she and those supporting her can only hope that a prisoner swap between the US and Russia comes to fruition.

Brittney Griner.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters

Biden administration reportedly offered convicted arms trafficker in exchange for the release of Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia



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