Former Inmate Describes the Hellish Conditions Awaiting Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner waits for the verdict inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. 
Brittney Griner waits for the verdict inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.

WNBA champion Brittney Griner’s Russian legal case may be over, but her nightmare is just beginning. After losing her appeal of a nine-year sentence for drug smuggling and possession, the basketball star will now be moved to a prison or labor camp.

In the days leading up to the appeal hearing, the eight-time WNBA All-Star’s lawyer, Alexander D. Boykov, revealed that she was worried she would be sent somewhere “with miserable or inhumane conditions.” Sadly, it appears those fears were warranted, as Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who was imprisoned for almost two years after participating in a 2012 protest against Russian president Vladimir Putin, described her experience to Reuters.

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“This is not a building with cells. This looks like a strange village, like a Gulag [labor] camp,” she said. “It actually is a [labor] camp because by law all the prisoners should work. The quite cynical thing about this work is that prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, almost without salary.”

Alyokhina explained that there’s a factory where the work is done and a “living zone” where “80 women lived in one room with just three toilets and no hot water.”

These would be horrendous conditions for a regular sized person, but Griner’s 6-foot-9 height combined with a body riddled by injuries from her basketball career will make this imprisonment extremely difficult for her. It’s also possible that the high-profile nature of her trial could make her a target for other inmates and prison guards. Alyokhina said she was “constantly videoed…because I am a ‘famous provocateur.’” We also can’t lose sight of the fact that the Phoenix Mercury center is a queer Black woman in a country with anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and there’s definitely a possibility that will play a role in how she’s treated.

In the aftermath of the two-time Olympic gold medalist’s appeal being denied, the Biden administration reiterated its commitment to bring Brittney home. However, without any communication or compromise from Russia, it seems unlikely that a deal for a prisoner exchange will be made anytime soon. On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted that Embassy officials in Russia had visited Griner, writing, “They saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances. We continue to press for the immediate release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and fair treatment for every detained American.”

I understand that without Russian cooperation, President Biden’s hands are tied, but I don’t need any more repetitive statements that keep telling me about his commitment to bring all detained Americans home. I need to know the State Department will keep advocating for Brittney Griner and not let her disappear into a nightmarish scenario. Just because the trial is over, it doesn’t mean the fight is.

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