LONDON – WNBA star Brittney Griner has begun serving her nine-year sentence for drug possession at a remote Russian penal colony that human rights advocates say is known for harsh conditions and violent criminals. It's in a region once synonymous with the Soviet gulag.
Griner was convicted Aug. 4 after customs agents said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist said she had been prescribed cannabis for pain and had no criminal intent.
After a Russian court rejected her appeal last month, her lawyers said she was taken to the IK-2 colony in Mordovia, a region 350 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Moscow.
Here is a look at what life looks like at Russian penal colonies, and at Griner's prospects of being freed in a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange.
WHAT IS A PENAL COLONY?
Penal colony is a term used to describe the most common type of prison in Russia, where inmates are housed in barracks and engage in menial labor for symbolic pay.
Under Josef Stalin, forced-labor camps in farflung locations dotted the entire USSR; some well-known ones were in Mordovia.
“In Russia, Mordovia is known as ‘the land of prisoners.’ Its colonies descend directly from the Stalin-era camps, and have a reputation for being particularly strict,” said Zoya Svetova, a Russian journalist and human rights defender who previously worked with the Public Monitoring Commision, a state-backed prison watchdog.
The gulag system and its czarist predecessor, which saw criminals and dissidents dispatched to remote regions of Siberia, provided prisoner labor to develop industries such as mining and logging, and to build highways and railroads. While conditions vary among modern-day penal colonies, Russian law still allows for inmates to be put to work, with most sewing uniforms for the Russian army and law enforcement.
Mordovia is home to over 15 similar colonies, including the IK-17 facility where American Paul Whelan, a retired U.S. Marine detained in 2018, is serving a 16-year sentence. Whelan was convicted on spying charges, which he and Washington deny.
WHAT IS LIFE LIKE AT IK-2?
The IK-2 is an all-female facility for first-time offenders, according to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service. Its over 800 inmates are housed in barracks.
But Svetova said IK-2 holds mostly women convicted of murder and assault, as well as a rising number of those incarcerated for drug crimes. She told The Associated Press in an interview that she and her colleagues received multiple reports of women being brutalized by their fellow inmates, “cruel” wardens and inadequate medical facilities.
“The women’s colonies are all served by one hospital, which we were previously notified lacked basic medicines,” she said.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the protest music group Pussy Riot, who was imprisoned in another female colony in Mordovia for protesting against Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral, said in an open letter in September 2013 that she was going on a hunger strike to bring attention to the brutal conditions.
She alleged that inmates at the IK-14 colony were “collapsing under the strain of slavery-like conditions,” forced to work up to 17 hours a day and succumbing to hunger and frostbites.
“I demand that the Mordovia camp function in accordance with the law. I demand that we are being treated like human beings, not slaves,” her letter said.
Tolokonnikova was released in December that year under an amnesty from the Russian Parliament.
Ulyana Khmeleva, a Russian entrepreneur who spent 11 years in Mordovia’s penal colonies on drug charges that she says were trumped-up, described the facilities as “a moral hell” in a 2019 essay in the Russian independent news outlet Mediazona.
She and fellow inmates were forced to work punishing hours in freezing temperatures, she said, and witnessed the deaths of multiple fellow prisoners.
WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR AN EXCHANGE?
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to get Griner home.
While Blinken didn’t elaborate, the AP and other news organizations have reported that the Biden administration has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. Bout once earned the nickname “the merchant of death.”
This week, a senior Russian diplomat confirmed that back-channel talks are ongoing between Moscow and Washington.
“I would like to hope that the prospect of (exchanging Bout) is not only preserved, it is being strengthened, and the moment will come when we get a concrete agreement,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on Friday.
Ryabkov said that while the two countries “have not yet agreed on a common denominator,” it was “undeniable” that a swap was being discussed.
“We certainly count on a positive result,” he said.
The Biden administration has classified Griner and Whelan as wrongfully detained. Analysts have pointed out that Moscow may be using the jailed Americans as bargaining chips amid soaring U.S.-Russian tensions over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.