BRittney Griner is being transported to one of Russia’s notorious penal colonies, according to a statement issued Wednesday by her lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov. The pair said they do not know where exactly she is and they will not be informed, alongside the US Embassy, until she arrives. This process can take up to two weeks. Right now, Griner is unreachable.
The 32-year-old American basketball titan and Olympic gold medalist was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being arrested at a Moscow airport on February 17 for possession of two vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil. Griner pleaded guilty to what she called an “in good faith mistake” and was sentenced in August, but her appeal against sentence was dismissed in October.
US officials met with Griner last week, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she was doing “as well as can be expected under the circumstances.” Wednesday, Jean-Pierre issued a statement that the administration is working “relentlessly” to secure her release through a possible prisoner exchange, and has called on Russia to improve the conditions to which she will be subjected.
This uncertainty is a deliberate part of the punishment process, says postdoctoral researcher Olga Zeveleva, whose work at the University of Helsinki focuses on the construction of race and ethnicity in Russian prisons.
“You’re in this state of uncertainty between one detention facility and another, and your lawyers and loved ones don’t really know where you are,” she said. This long transfer process is known as stage in Russia and he sees prisoners travel a great distance to get to a penal colony, sometimes taking the train and stopping at detention centers along the way.
Here’s what to know about the history and conditions of Russian penal colonies.
What is a penal colony?
Penal colonies are the most common institutions for the registered population of Russia 467,000 prisoners once they are transferred from a detention center.
Read more: Brittney Griner’s fight for freedom
The colonies gained a reputation for brutality. Russia is currently home to 642 corrective colonies, as well as 18 juvenile settlements and eight prisons – which Zeveleva says are architecturally distinct from settlements because they impose restrictions on movement and stricter security measures.
What does a typical day look like in a colony?
A typical day in a colony differs depending on the specific institution a prisoner is in, but they consistently have a comprehensive record of human rights abuses, including torture, poor hygiene, and shoddy medical assistance.
Experts also say that there is a distinction between penal colonies for men and women. “Penitentiary colonies for women are generally run more strictly by prison administrations, and they are more regime-type prisons where a day is structured in a very rigid way,” Zeveleva says of the type of institution Griner will be held in, noting that men’s colonies are more likely to be run by crime bosses or local gangs.
Imprisoned women stand during a morning inspection at a women’s prison in the central Russian city of Sarapul in August 2012.
In women’s colonies inmates are also expected to perform daily cleaning duties in the surrounding area, as well as textile and sewing work. Although textile work can be remunerated, this income is often used to cover fines incurred by the inmate due to his criminal record. Griner was fined 1 million rubles (currently worth $14,334) when she was charged with drug possession and smuggling.
What is the history of penal colonies in Russia?
Due to unsuccessful attempts at legal reform After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the current Russian prison system inherited many features of the Soviet system of Gulag camps or forced labor camps. These characteristics included a collectivist approach to rehabilitation, penal labor, and exile to remote locations.
“Many Russian prisons are geographically and architecturally linked to these camps. These are the same structures that were built in Soviet times, and they are located in the same parts of Russia. said Zeveleva. The penal colonies are located in remote locations hundreds of kilometers from any neighboring town, making it difficult for prisoners to receive visits and come into contact with human rights defenders.
The often torturous reality of life in the penal colonies is made possible by their remoteness from Russian society and global attention. “These kinds of architectural and infrastructural legacies cause all sorts of problems for people who are imprisoned in society today,” adds Zeveleva.
Why did Griner’s team fear this decision?
In a statement on Tuesday, Griner’s agents said their priority is Griner’s “health and wellness.”
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, singer of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist protest and performance art group, recalled the brutal conditions she faced following a 2012 conviction for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Tolokonnikova said she was subjected to 16-hour workdays in a colony sewing shop as well as negligent hygiene rooms with faulty plumbing.
For Griner, a queer black woman, it is feared she may experience more violence than some other inmates. According to a 2021 human rights report report by the US State Department, violations in the colonies consisted of extrajudicial executions, including enforced disappearances of LGBTQ+ people, and widespread torture that could result in death or sexual violence.
Additionally, Chechen prisoner Salman Mukayev was allegedly choked and electrocuted for hours on suspicion of being gay in 2020.
An exterior view of the IK-3 penal colony where imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was allegedly transferred to the city of Vladimir, in April 2021.
Dimitar Dilkoff—AFP/Getty Images
Despite these cases, Zeveleva believes Griner’s case is so high-profile that she will have a complex experience in the colonies.
“I would say it’s unlikely she’ll experience the many physical abuses or tortures we hear about in the news, which doesn’t mean she’ll have an easy experience by any means,” she says. “In Russia, race, ethnicity and class intersect in very different ways and I suspect Griner will be seen, first and foremost, as an American prisoner from a developed country, who has a very high profile in the media and who is really quite famous. I think those themes of his identity will probably stand out the most.
Ultimately, experts such as Zeveleva are unsure how Griner’s removal will affect US efforts to engage in a prisoner swap.
“I don’t know what the political calculations are here. I say this because I’m actually quite surprised that she’s come to this and is being sent to a penal colony,” she says.
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