What is life in Russian prison like for Brittney Griner? Writing letters, reading Dostoevsky

As her trial continues, Brittney Griner's situation contains little certainty. But until the U.S. government can negotiate her release from Russia, Griner will remain "wrongfully detained" there on drug charges that could carry a sentence of 10 years in prison. 

The two-time Olympian and WNBA star pleaded guilty "without intent" on Thursday, the second day of her trial. Griner will return to court next Thursday. Until then, she will return to her cell in the pre-trial detention facility she's been in since February.

That cell likely has "ancient" plumbing and fixtures, according to David Whelan, whose brother, Paul Whelan, has also been classified as "wrongfully detained" in Russia.

"When they talk about buildings being Stalin-era, they're not kidding," David Whelan told USA TODAY Sports.

Paul Whelan borrowed an English-Russian dictionary from the pre-trial detention facility's library, and his first cell lacked a toilet – instead, there was just a hole in the ground.

Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022.
Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022.

David Whelan said prisons in Russia are run in one of two ways: by the guards or the gangsters. The better jails for prisoners are the ones controlled by guards. Torture, murder and abuse are commonplace in the system, David Whelan said.

Prisoners who haven't been sentenced yet typically receive one hour of sunlight a day, David Whelan said. The other 23 hours are spent in the cell.

"Prisoners have to maintain the cleanliness of their cell, and so it was at first quite filthy, since the previous occupant had not seemed concerned about cleanliness," David Whelan said. "You are allowed a weekly shower and a daily walk."

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David Whelan said despite the conditions, his brother is treated better than the average Russian prisoner. He also cautioned that there are differences between men's and women's prisons.

When Paul Whelan was sentenced to 18 years in prison on espionage charges, he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility to a prison colony eight hours outside of Moscow. That could be the next step for Griner if she is sentenced and ordered to such a colony – a remote location that combines prison and labor.

Paul Whelan was out of sight about a month while a "prison train" transported him to Siberia, his brother said.

Small bed, lots of Dostoevsky

Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Moscow, delivered a letter from President Joe Biden and was able to speak with Griner on Thursday. Writing letters has been Griner's lone form of communication with loved ones and teammates since sending frantic texts after being stopped Feb. 17 at an airport outside Moscow.

"I'm terrified I might be in here forever," Griner wrote in a letter delivered to Biden on July 4.

Rood told reporters on Thursday that Griner was “eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances, she’s doing well."

The U.S. State Department fumbled a scheduled phone call between Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, on their wedding anniversary last month. Cherelle Griner told CBS this week she receives a letter from Brittney about once a week.

Black women face a hard enough time in prison, said Victoria Kirby York, deputy executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. Hair products, menstrual products and skincare necessities are hard to find in prison – let alone one on the other side of the world.

A person's mental health suffers in prison, as do cognitive abilities, Kirby York said. Distance and international geopolitics only exacerbate those feelings in Griner's case.

“When you’re in a nation by yourself, trying to fight for yourself, having cognitive abilities and function is really important,” she said.

The political strain between Washington and Moscow is another factor. Russians are being fed anti-American and anti-West vitriol, Kirby York said.

"Brittney is the American that they’re all interfacing with in this system, and that to me is scary," Kirby York said. "That to me is why there needs to be urgency to bring her home."

A March report from Russian state media agency TASS said Griner had two cellmates who speak English and were helping her communicate with the guards. The TASS report quoted Ekaterina Kalugina of Moscow's Public Monitoring Commission, which observes the treatment of prisoners, saying Griner's height (6-foot-9) presented an issue: almost all Russian prison beds are bunk beds.

“We saw in the first couple of months of her detainment she had a bed that she couldn’t lay straight in,” Kirby York said of Griner.

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Kalugina told TASS in March that Griner had started reading Dostoevsky and a biography on members of the Rolling Stones.

When it comes to the food in Russian prisons, "there's no interest in nutrition," David Whelan said.

Fish, buckwheat porridge, brown bread and the occasional apple or orange is what his brother often receives. The Whelan family has successfully sent fresh fruit and protein, and even vegetables once.

In the pre-trial detention facilities, the food is taken to the prisoner's cell. Paul Whelan and his fellow prisoners eat at a mess hall at the labor colony.

"You get the feeling that a lot of prisoners have regular visitors who bring food, perhaps even meals, to supplement the basic prison life," David Whelan said. "Some things are refused, some are 'confiscated' as part of the endemic corruption."

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner pleaded guilty. What is Russian prison like for her?