Nov 9, 2022 - World

What Brittney Griner could face in a Russian penal colony

Brittney Griner seen on a screen during hearing

Brittney Griner seen via video before a court hearing on Oct. 25. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

With her legal efforts to fight Russian drug charges coming to an apparent end, American basketball star Brittney Griner is being moved to one of the country's penal colonies, which have a history of human rights abuses.

Why it matters: The 32-year-old WNBA player — whose case has received significant international attention — is being transferred to a prison camp within Russia's penal system, where reports of sexual violence, unsanitary conditions and even torture have surfaced in recent years.

  • The transfer process began on Friday, her lawyers said.

Background: Griner was found guilty on drug charges by a Russian court in August and sentenced to nine years in prison for having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

  • In October, a Russian court rejected her appeal, meaning she will likely be sent to a penal colony to serve the rest of her sentence — estimated at roughly eight years with time served in pretrial detention.
  • "Brittney Griner’s nine-plus year sentence is regarded as harsh and extreme by Russian legal standards," Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner's agent, tweeted. "Today’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, appeal outcome further validates the fact that she is being held hostage and is being used as a political pawn."
  • Griner's attorney Alexander Boykov said that her team remains hopeful about a possible prisoner exchange, the BBC reported, which would be Griner's best bet to avoid serving her entire prison sentence.

What are penal colonies?

Russia's penal colony system is in essence a network of prison camps in which prisoners are housed in barracks and perform labor, according to the Center for Eastern Studies in Poland.

  • Penal colonies are the descendants of Russia's Soviet-era forced labor camps, known as gulags.
  • They are also a source of revenue, with many housing manufacturing plants for food or clothing, and others doing construction work.
  • Penal colonies are located in sparsely populated parts of the country, far from urban areas, and the system lends itself to a "unique penal culture in Russia that combines imprisonment and exile," according to a report by Amnesty International.

How many penal colonies are there?

Around 684 of the 692 penitentiaries in Russia are penal colonies, per the New York Times.

  • These institutions hold a total of approximately 520,000 inmates, AP reported in 2021.
  • While there are no official statistics on institutions for women, there are believed to be an estimated 60 female penal colonies and pretrial detention centers, Olga Podoplelova, head of litigation at the Russia Behind Bars Foundation, told Axios.
  • An estimated 39,000 penal institution prisoners are female, Podoplelova added.

What are conditions like in penal colonies?

There are different types of penal colonies, with varied levels of strictness and restrictions for prisoners, but many can be characterized by insufficient heating and running water, overcrowding, and dilapidated facilities, according to the Center for Eastern Studies.

  • "Conditions in prisons and detention centers varied but were often harsh and life threatening," the State Department said in a 2021 report on Russia's human rights practices.
  • Limited access to health care, poor sanitation, food shortages, and physical and sexual violence are also common, the report said.
  • The State Department said there were also "multiple reports that, in some prison colonies, authorities systematically tortured inmates."
  • "Penal policy towards women is declared to be more liberal," Podoplelova told Axios, because they can receive unlimited numbers of packages and cannot be sentenced to life in prison in Russia.
  • However, female prisoners are not exempt from abuses of power by institution administration and "slavery-like conditions of work," she added.

How are prisoners transported to the penal colonies?

Russian authorities are extremely secretive about prisoner transfers, and the time it takes for prisoners to travel to these remote locations means transfers can "effectively amount to enforced disappearances," Amnesty International wrote in its report.

  • These transfers are done in overcrowded train cars or trucks that "often amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," it added, and the trips "can take from two weeks to a month or more."

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, arguably Russia's most high-profile prisoner, described his time at Penal Colony No. 2 — about 100 miles outside Moscow — as a "friendly concentration camp," per the Washington Post.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to note that a Russian court rejected Brittney Griner's appeal on Oct. 25, not Tuesday.

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