KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Brittney Griner
The Russian penal colony where Brittney Griner is now serving out her nine-year sentence is notorious for its brutal treatment of the female inmates, according to former prisoners and human rights activists.
Situated in the small town of Yavas, about 270 miles southeast of Moscow, penal colony IK-2 was founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931.
Ivan Melnikov, the Russian representative of the European Committee of Human Rights, tells PEOPLE that he is surprised that of all the 36 women colonies in Russia, Griner was sent to Moldavia. "No [convicts] want to be sent there. It is not a good place."
No former inmates from IK-2 were willing to speak with PEOPLE for an interview. "They are frightened," Natalia Filimonova from the NGO Russia Behind Bars told PEOPLE.
In past interviews or statements, former inmates tell stories of routine brutality at the hands of staff, lack of medical care, malnutrition and slavery-like conditions.
"I haven't been able to sleep for years because of the trauma of having spent time there," said former prisoner Tatiana Gavrilova, in an interview with the independent Russian news website Sota.Vision. "When I first got there I was stripped naked and told to take off my cross." When she refused, saying she would die first, the camp director told her to get dressed and punched her in the back of the head.
"Everything went black," says Gavrilova, who was sentenced to 16 years for the murder of an abusive partner when she was 20 years old. "I came to in handcuffs tied to the radiator. We were all beaten. If you lose consciousness they throw water over you and start beating you again. Many of us died because there was no medical help."
YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Brittney Griner
In the same interview, another former inmate, Olga Shilyaeva, says: "they have their own laws there." She said the guards act with complete impunity and that the inmates have no rights.
"We were made to run up and down in a loop in the corridor… and duck under a baton at this [knee] height. If you touch it, you're beaten with it. The director is a maniac, he beats you up with batons, boxing gloves, anything. We had about one suicide a year."
She goes on to describe how, after she snapped back at one of the guards, the director came in and said, 'get down on your knees and beg forgiveness.' When she refused, he told her to stand with her hands against the wall — a punishment many of the inmates recall — and began beating her on the back with a metal rod until she collapsed to her knees.
In 2017, the Russian newspaper Moskovksii Komsomolyets published a special report on conditions in the IK-2 colony, saying that inmates are forced to work "from 7 a.m. to midnight and sometimes until three in the morning." They are not permitted to leave to go to the toilet, and so they "take jars and plastic bags with them, in which they relieve themselves without leaving their post."
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Tatyana Chepurina, a new inmate at the time, found it hard to master the sewing machine and so "was forced to work 22 hours a day, was not allowed to use the toilet or go to the canteen to eat," Moskovskii Komsomolyets reported. "She was called an underachiever and beaten severely. In the evening of the same day, Chepurina hanged herself with her own headscarf."
"She was very quiet and kind," Oksana Trufanova, a former inmate who served with Chepurina, writes in an open letter shared with PEOPLE by Russia Behind Bars.
Work conditions at the penal colony are cramped, Trufanova said.
"We were made to work all hours of the night… the head of the sewing workshop would beat us with a plank. They can beat you for anything. They have boxing gloves in their lockers. If you walk out of step when marching in the yard, they beat you."
The food is virtually inedible, Trufanova, who is now a pro-bono human rights lawyer in Chelyabinsk, said. "Every evening we were given sour, rotten cabbage. Lunch was always pearl barley soup swimming with weevils. Sometimes there were more weevils than barley."
Another common punishment is standing outside in winter without a coat, with arms stretched out in front of you, watched by a guard from his room "until they became fed up with watching us," Trufanova says.
"Guards would often open the window to the cell in minus-20 temperatures laughingly saying 'it's a bit hot in here.' We would climb under our mattresses to try and keep from freezing."
Three anonymous former inmates who were filmed for the independent news website Zekovnet said that there is no justice in the colony, and trying to complain was ineffective.
"One new inmate, a young girl, told her mother everything during a visit, she was crying and shaking, and the mum went straight to the local [official] to complain. He picked up the phone to call the prison director and that girl was beaten to within an inch of her life and never complained again."
When asked how lesbians are treated in prison, one inmate replied, "they don't care what orientation you are as long as you do as your told."
An ex-inmate who preferred to remain anonymous told Moskovskii Komsomlyets: "Women in IK-2 do not live, they survive."
Ethan Miller/Getty (L-R) Brianna Turner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kia Nurse and Brittney Griner
The colony receives visits from the Russian Public Monitoring Commission (PMC), supposedly set up to protect prisoner's human rights, but as human rights activist Ivan Melnikov says: "they're the type of people who have the same mentality as those who work in the prison system. They're not independent. They make excuses for what's happening there. That's why I left the PMC."
When asked if he thought conditions might be improving he replied: "I don't think it's getting better, I heard only that it's [getting] worse and worse. "
Melnikov is hopeful, though, that Griner will be okay at IK-2 — and that the potential prisoner swap with Russia will work out.
"I think they will treat Brittney with care because she is so famous," he says. "They aren't likely to permit any obvious violations [of the rules] in regard to her."