Brittney Griner is set to serve time in one of Russia’s penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease is rampant, and labor is forced

Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner is escorted from the court room following her Russian trial.Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison after customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February.

Griner’s legal team has appealed the decision, but if her conviction is not overturned and she’s not included in a prisoner swap between the US and Russia, the eight-time WNBA All-Star will serve her sentence at a penal colony.

Direct descendants of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag system, Russian penal colonies are prison labor camps known as disease incubators, human rights abuses run rampant.

Here’s what we know about Russian penal colonies and what Griner’s experience could look like:

Brittney Griner is one of the most accomplished basketball players on the planet.

Brittney Griner.

Griner.REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A 6-foot-9 superstar for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner is an eight-time WNBA All-Star, two-time scoring champion, two-time defensive player of the year, and WNBA champion.

Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

She’s also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner.AP Photo/Eric Gay

When she’s not competing in the WNBA or for USA Basketball, Griner takes her talents overseas to supplement her income.

Brittney Griner and UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Griner and her UMMC Ekaterinburg teammates celebrate winning the EuroLeague.REUTERS/Murad Sezer

How low WNBA salaries led to an American basketball superstar’s detainment in Russia

Each year since 2014 — just her second out of college — Griner has headed to Russia to compete for European powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Griner (right) competes for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

Griner (right) competes for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.BSR Agency/Getty Images

Brittney Griner’s Russian team — owned by a Putin-aligned oligarch — is a hot spot for WNBA superstars

The 2021-22 WNBA off-season was no exception; Griner was on her way to the Ural city in February when she was stopped at a Moscow airport.

Brittney Griner.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

Russian customs agents found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in the WNBA star’s luggage and subsequently detained her.

Brittney Griner.

Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

Nearly six months later, Griner was convicted of drug smuggling “with criminal intent” and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison.

Brittney Griner

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a court room after her last words, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison after guilty verdict on drug charges

Her legal team has since appealed the decision, but the move is unlikely to grant her freedom or even reduce her sentence.

Story continues

Brittney Griner.

Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

Brittney Griner appealed her 9-year Russian prison sentence, but the move is unlikely to free the WNBA star

Unless she’s released in a prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia, Griner will almost certainly spend some time at a Russian penal colony.

Brittney Griner.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

Brittney Griner’s freedom could hinge on an unorthodox prisoner exchange involving an ex-US Marine and a notorious Russian arms dealer

Russian penal colonies are prison labor camps that are essentially the remnants of the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag system.

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Griner will be sent to one of the 35 or so all-women penal colonies in the country.

Brittney Griner

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 13, 2022.AP

Source: People

Each facility varies in its reputation and treatment of inmates, based on its geographic location and its leadership structure.

Russian women's prison.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Some, like prison colony No. 14 in Mordovia, are notoriously brutal.

Russia's penal colony in Moldovia.

MAXIM MARMUR/AFP via Getty Images

Inmates there have been said to live among rats, lose fingers while working 17-hour days at sewing machines, and be forced to watch guards burn kittens alive.

Russian prisoners work on sewing machines.

Reuters

Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

And while other facilities aren’t known to be quite as harsh, there are several disturbing commonalities across the penal system.

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

Dilapidated infrastructure has been known to limit access to running water and heat, especially in more remote locations.

Russian penal colony.

AP Photo/Laura Mills

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

Prisoner hygiene is often neglected as a result.

Russian prisoner washes her hands with water from a pot.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

The colonies are severely overcrowded, with most prisoners living in close quarters alongside approximately 50 other people.

Russian penal colony barracks.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

Source: People

Russian law dictates that each inmate have 20 square feet of personal space, but that standard — which is less than the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights — is often not met in Russian facilities.

Russian prison barracks.

LIFE.RU/Handout via REUTERS TV

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

Between prisoners’ close proximity to one another and lack of basic hygiene, penal colonies in Russia are known as incubators for epidemics.

Russian penal colony.

AP Photo/Yuri Tutov

AIDS, tuberculosis, COVID-19, and other ailments run rampant.

An inmate is evaluated at a Russian prison hospital.

Russian Federal Penitentiary Service via AP

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies, Puzzle

And women in the system are often denied medical care, never mind proper medical care.

Patients in a Russian hospital.

AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv

Source: Riddle

Despite criticism that the system resembled Joseph Stalin’s Gulags, the Russian government reintroduced forced labor in 2016.

Forced labor at a Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: VOA News

Most women cook, clean, or sew to fulfill this requirement.

A prison cook prepares food.

Vannessa Jimenez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

And past inmates in all-female Russian penal colonies have said that “voluntary” overtime work is actually mandatory, with guards threatening retribution if they don’t sign on to work extra.

Forced labor at a Russian prison camp.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: Riddle

As a result, some women are forced to work 16- or 17-hour days with just four hours of sleep each night.

Russian inmates work planting cabbage.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

Source: Riddle

Torture is not unheard of at these facilities.

Russian penal colony guard.

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Source: Centre for Eastern Studies

And when it comes to abuse, “even official statistics indicate that it is practiced on a mass scale,” according to commentary piece from the Centre for Eastern Studies.

Russian penal colony.

REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

But it’s possible Griner could have a less harrowing experience — that is, if she winds up going to a penal colony at all.

Brittney Griner.

Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo

If Griner is “sent to a colony with a lenient governor,” Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russian Department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee, told People, she may be allowed “to coach basketball in the daytime rather than being a seamstress.”

Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson.

Brittney Griner (left) shoots over fellow WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Source: People

People also reported that such a move is not unprecedented, as “Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached inmates while they served time in one of the colonies.”

Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev.

Mike Kireev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Source: People

Melnikov also told People that inmates typically receive “half an hour to two hours a day” for free time, with which they can “chat with each other, read a book from the library, write letters home, play sports, play board games, and call friends and family.”

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.

Brittney (left) and Cherelle Griner.Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Source: People

But even accounting for Griner’s chance at relative normalcy inside the penal colony, her experience there will undoubtedly be challenging.

Brittney Griner.

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

In the meantime, she and those supporting her can only hope that a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia comes to fruition.

Brittney Griner.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters

Biden administration reportedly offered convicted arms trafficker in exchange for the release of Brittney Griner and another American detained in Russia

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