- BBC Russian Service
American basketball player Brittney Griner has been sent to a Russian penal colony to serve a nine-year prison sentence for illegal drug possession.
Nobody knows how long she will actually serve, since the United States wants to agree with the Russian government on a prisoner exchange to free her.
Until that happens, Your life inside a Russian prison will certainly not be easy. and will probably put up with conditions like any other inmate.
Griner lost her appeal against her drug possession conviction in early November and was later transferred from a Moscow detention center to a penal colony.
But only now is his whereabouts known. Her lawyers said that she is in the IK-2 women’s penal colony, in the remote village of Yavas in Mordovia500 kilometers southeast of Moscow.
Types of Russian prisons
The concept of “penal colony” revives the memories of the soviet era gulagbut in this case it simply refers to a prison, with several rows of low buildings housing communal barracks for inmates and separate structures housing workshops.
For days, no one, including his lawyers, knew where Griner had been sent. For Russia this is normal, and when the families of the inmates cannot afford a good lawyer, it can sometimes take weeks for them to receive a letter from the prison.
The prison where Griner is held is one of Russia’s regular penal colonies, where most of the country’s 453,000 inmates are held.
Repeat offenders or those convicted of serious crimes are sent to colonies of strict regime or special regime.
The difference lies in the number of visits allowed to family members, the frequency of parcels allowed with food or clothing, and the severity of the punishments for breaking the rules.
Some felonies are punishable by time in cells with no access to the open air.
At the other end of the prison scale are “settlement colonies” for those who commit petty crimes, which are more relaxed and even allow days out.
Living in a detention center
Griner’s conviction does not surprise anyone in Russia: 13.5% of all sentences in 2021 were handed down by possession, smuggling, or trafficking of illicit drugs. For women that number rises to 42%, although not all are punished with deprivation of liberty.
Russian police have been accused for years of boosting crime statistics by planting drugs or pressuring detainees into confessing. This was not the case for Griner: he admitted to having cartridges of cannabis oil in his luggage when he returned to Russia in February to play basketball during the US offseason.
For male prisoners, violence is a constant threat, whether from other inmates or staff.
Videos of torture, rape and humiliation released last year they showed compelling evidence of an organized system of intimidation, extortion and extraction of confessions run by inmates incited by prison authorities.
Such violence has no place in women’s prisons, but Olga Podoplelova, from the NGO “Russia Behind Bars”, says life for inmates is not easy anyway.
“There is no informal prison hierarchy set up in women’s prisons, but the administration controls everything and there are many ways to make the life of a recluse hell“, says Podoplelova.
The obligations of prisoners
Under Russian law, inmates have to work. Most do, as refusal usually means trouble, although the highest breed of convicts in the male criminal hierarchy, known as blatnye (literally translated into Spanish as “thieves”), he refuses on principle.
The prison regime involves meager pay for conditions that many observers describe as slave labor.
“Inmates work 12 to 16 hours a day with breaks for lunch and a bathroom,” says Podoplelova.
While men in penal colonies often work in wood processing or welding, women are employed sewing clothes, mostly uniforms for the prison service, army or police.
The machines are old and the workplaces are poorly equipped, so Griner, who is 2.06 meters tall, will have to crouch in front of the sewing machine.
The Yavas penal colony, where Griner is said to be imprisoned, does not have a good reputation, and female inmates who worked there speak of beatings and intimidation.
“I worked as a seamstress and there is a law: if you don’t meet the production rate, they beat you,” former prisoner Irina Noskova told the Russian outlet. The New Times in 2013.
Attempts to fight for the rights of inmate workers are rare.
Two women who denounced the problem with a hunger strike were Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, jailed two years after their group Pussy Riot performed a punk performance at a Moscow cathedral in 2012.
Alekhina served her sentence in two regular prisons and says traditions dating back to the days of Joseph Stalin’s Gulag system are very much alive.
“All this (work) is without normal food, without a normal medical system and without any defense of human rights,” he recently told the Reuters news agency.
Tolokonnikova served part of her sentence in another women’s penal colony.
Russia’s highest-profile prisoner is opposition politician Alexei Navalny, and he, too, has taken up the fight for better prison conditions and wages.
Navalny is serving a nine-year sentence in a strict regime colony 250 kilometers east of Moscow. His lawyer has described the site as “monstrous.”
He, too, was forced to sew clothes, but managed to convince the authorities to replace the old short four-legged stools with suitable swivel chairs for him and a few co-workers.
The authorities have also made it difficult for him to communicate with his defense lawyers. A glass screen that separated them was replaced with an opaque film and he was then forbidden to show them any documents. “I am put in a 1 meter x 1 meter room, facing a plastic wall with human outlines behind it,” she complained.
Brittney Griner is highly unlikely to face this kind of pressure.
But there is little chance that his foreign passport and sporting fame will buy him any relief from the conditions endured by common prisoners.
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