With the hope of a prisoner swap fading, former WNBA player Brittney Griner is now being transferred to a Russian penal colony, according to her lawyers.
While information specific to Griner is sparse, experts describe horrifying conditions in Russian penal colonies—gulag-like camps with harsh work hours, meager accommodations, and frequent abuse. Further, according to one former inmate, Griner's status as an openly gay American is likely to make serving her sentence particularly difficult. With the possibility of a prisoner swap appearing more and more unlikely, Griner could very well spend nearly a decade within a Russian penal colony—facing conditions some experts describe as even worse than those in American prisons.
Brittney Griner was first detained at a Moscow airport in February when officials allegedly found hashish oil cartridges in her luggage. Griner, though maintaining that she had no intention to break Russian law, pled guilty to drug possession charges, and was sentenced to 9.5 years in a Russian penal colony in August. After over three months of waiting—along with stalled prisoner-swap talks—Griner has finally begun her transfer to the colony where she will serve out her sentence.
According to one expert, Russia's penal colonies are much more brutal than American prisons. The colonies are dominated by constant physical and sexual abuse, as well as grueling physical labor. Women's prisons can even be worse than men's prisons, claims Olga Romanova, the founder of a Russian prison advocacy group. "Everyone is up for themselves there," Romanova told Politico. "Everything goes — you can betray, you can abuse. There are no rules of behavior."
In the penal colony, Romanova explained that Griner will be expected to work from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day—most likely sewing police uniforms. In addition to grueling labor for nearly nonexistent pay—similar to the American model of forced prison labor—Griner is likely to be singled out for particular abuse.
"The Russian government taught people long ago that Americans are the enemy of humankind. She is likely to be jumped in the bathrooms; her food might be taken away. She is likely to experience a lot of verbal abuse with the kind of slurs no one ever should hear."
Further, Romanova noted that without fluent Russian skills, Griner is likely to suffer. "In Russian prisons, it's forbidden to speak any language but Russian. All the conversations are routinely surveilled, and she would be required to speak Russian. I don't know how she would pull it off," she told Politico.
Nadya Tolokonnikova, a former member of Pussy Riot who was imprisoned in a Russian penal colony for nearly two years, described a similar concern due to Griner's lack of Russian skills. "I think it's going to be specifically difficult for Britney because she doesn't know Russian language and she cannot learn about the law that she has to obey in penal colony, and she cannot protect herself," Tolokonnikova told CNN.
Further, Tolokonnikova went into even more detail about the harrowing conditions in the penal colonies "people die from hard physical labor and inability to access medical treatment that they need."
While the U.S. State Department still classifies Griner as wrongfully detained, and previously seemed intent on a prisoner swap, hope of actually freeing the former WNBA player anytime soon is bleak. For the foreseeable future, Griner will likely be kept in a penal colony whose conditions are nearly indistinguishable from Soviet-era gulags.
"She is obviously going to come out a different person," Romanova told Politico, "We can't know what kind of person that will be."