Inside the Russian Penal Colony Where Brittney Griner Will Serve Her 9-Year Prison Sentence
Jason Duaine Hahn – August 10, 2022
The WNBA star and her lawyers had asked for leniency after officials at a Russian airport allegedly found less than a gram of hash oil in her luggage in February, but a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years, just below the maximum-possible sentence of 10.
There’s hope that Griner could leave earlier — her lawyers previously told PEOPLE that they’re putting together an appeal to attempt to reduce her sentence, and the Biden administration confirmed that they are working on a potential prisoner exchange to bring her home — but for now, she’ll live in a penal colony in Russia.
Across Russia, there are 35 women’s penal colonies that house an estimated 60,000 inmates, Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russian Department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee, and Yekaterina Kalugina, a Russian human rights activist who observed Griner and her living conditions in March, tell PEOPLE.
The cells have just over 11 feet of private space, with most cells holding anywhere between 40 to 60 women who sleep in bunk beds.
Jim Heintz/AP/Shutterstock Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in the Khimki district court
Melnikov and Kalugina say much of what goes on in the colonies depends on the prison governor, with some being more strict than others. (Both say they cannot reveal which colony Griner is located.)
“Brittney is being held in a detention cell within a penal colony,” Melnikov says. At the detention center, the spaces are cramped and there’s only a small exercise yard, but there is a benefit to staying there — each day counts as two towards a prison sentence.
Kalungina expects that the guards will keep Griner in the detention center until Russia and the U.S. decide if they’ll go through with her prisoner exchange.
Melnikov adds that “she is likely to stay there for the time of her appeal, which might be up to three months if she isn’t pardoned and exchanged before then, but if her appeal fails, she might be sent on to another colony.”
ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Brittney Griner
Inside the colony, there’s more space and Griner will have to work eight hours a day. For most prisoners, this means sewing, cleaning, cooking and serving food, but, because of her career as a WNBA player, Griner can see about coaching women’s basketball. There’s a precedent for such an arrangement — Russian soccer players Alexander Kokorin and Pavel Mamayev coached inmates while they served time in one of the colonies.
Melnikov says that it’s up to the prison governor to decide if Griner can coach.
“I hope that she will be sent to a colony with a lenient governor who allows her to coach basketball in the daytime rather than being a seamstress,” he says. “Prisoners are encouraged to play sports or do yoga and so on, and basketball is popular. I think that would be the best thing for her.”
Ethan Miller/Getty (L-R) Brianna Turner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kia Nurse and Brittney Griner
Each morning, Melnikov says, the prisoners “are woken at 6 a.m., they wash, dress, make their beds, stand to attention for the register, go to breakfast and then start an eight-hour working day, usually as a seamstresses. But we are trying to encourage governors to use the talents of the inmates. For example, working with art.”
Prisoners in the colony get some free time outside of their work requirements, Melnikov says.
“Their free time is set by the governor, from half an hour to two hours a day and during that time they can just chat with each other, read a book from the library, write letters home, play sports, play board games and call friends and family.”
The prisoners are supposed to get a minimum wage of $180 a month, Melnikov says, which they can spend in the prison shop on items like toiletries, tampons, cigarettes and fresh fruit and vegetables, and they can also pay for the internet to send emails.
Generally, though, the conditions are difficult. Tuberculosis is common in the colonies, many prisoners are malnourished from the limited food and the medical care is poor. Most need friends and family to send them food and basic toiletries, but that isn’t possible for some prisoners.
Sarah Krivanek, another American who has been imprisoned in Russia for the last nine months on charges of assaulting a Russian man who quickly dropped any charges against her, went through a similar process to Griner. She stayed in a detention center through her trial and appeal, and is now serving a one-year, three-month sentence at a penal colony in Ryazan, a city about 120 miles southeast of Moscow, PEOPLE reported. Krivanek, too, is hoping for the U.S. to bring her home.
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For now, though, Griner is again waiting to hear what will happen to her. She’s staying in the detention center, where she can choose to work to get outside and see other people, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist doesn’t know if she’ll be exchanged, have a successful appeal, or if she’ll live out her next nine years in a Russian penal colony.
When Griner heard about the potential exchange, she was “quite happy to know that she’s not been forgotten and that there are some possible developments,” her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, previously told PEOPLE. “But she’s quite realistic about what’s going on.”