Stale food, 16-hour workdays: What Russian prison life could be like for Brittney Griner

Deep in a snow-covered forest, a few hundred miles removed from Moscow’s bustle and noise, is a bland stretch of Mordovian road with a grim claim to fame. This is Russia’s land of prisons, known for little else besides its nearly two dozen penal colonies and the tiny villages formed around them.

Russian authorities transferred Brittney Griner to one of these dreaded Mordovian prisons last month after her last-gasp appeal of her drug smuggling conviction went nowhere. She could serve the remainder of her nine-year sentence behind the tall fences and razor wire of Female Penal Colony IK-2 unless the U.S. can negotiate a prisoner exchange with Russia to bring her home sooner.

[UPDATE: Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 10 months after arrest]

A few days after Griner arrived at IK-2, the American basketball star’s Russian defense lawyers visited her and reported that she was “doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapted to a new environment.” Attorney Maria Blagovolina did not respond to an email from Yahoo Sports on Monday seeking an update and further details.

To better understand what day-to-day penal colony life is like and what challenges Griner might face, Yahoo Sports combed reports from human rights groups and government agencies and spoke to attorneys and researchers who have visited inmates in IK-2. They paint a bleak picture of corrupt guards, military-esque rules, exhausting workdays and extreme isolation.

Griner’s first indication of the hardships ahead likely came when she arrived at her penal colony last month and had to surrender her civilian clothes and belongings in exchange for a prison uniform. Experts say prisoners can face discipline if they don’t button their uniforms to the neck and wear headscarves at all times.

Whereas Griner lived in a cell at her pre-trial detention center in the Moscow suburbs, inmates at IK-2 share a communal dormitory with up to 100 other women. Petty thieves sleep alongside drug offenders and murderers. First-time lawbreakers bunk next to hardened recidivists. None of the prisoners is allowed to display any personal items atop their bedside cabinets, not even pictures of their loved ones.

“It really struck me as an incredibly sterile, almost sad environment,” said University of Oxford professor Judith Pallot, whose current Gulag Echoes project is the culmination of nearly two decades of research on Russian prisons. “These colonies seem to eliminate the differences and the individuality of the women there.”

After IK-2 prisoners rise from their beds at 6 each morning, they sit down to a breakfast of stale bread and porridge, and then begin a long day of forced labor. Most are required to make uniforms for the Russian police and armed forces, a tedious job made worse by the combination of high production quotas and decades-old, Soviet-era sewing machines.

The shifts are long, the breaks are short, and the rewards are meager. Women who complain often make a brutal situation only worse. Prison officials might punish them by sending them to solitary confinement cells, by restricting visits or phone calls with family or even by resorting to violence, Olga Podoplelova, a Moscow-based attorney for the human rights organization Russia Behind Bars, told Yahoo Sports.

“If Brittney is made to work, I think prison will be really difficult for her,” Podoplelova said. “They have all kinds of instruments to force a person to behave the way they want.”

A view shows the Female Penal Colony IK-2, where U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner serves her sentence, in Yavas, the Republic of Mordovia, Russia November 18, 2022. PICTURE OBTAINED BY REUTERS
A view shows the Female Penal Colony IK-2, where U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner serves her sentence, in Yavas, the Republic of Mordovia, Russia. (REUTERS)

‘Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all’

Russia’s penal colonies are a remnant of one of the darkest periods in the country’s history. From 1929 to 1953, Joseph Stalin resorted to killing untold numbers of Russian citizens and imprisoning millions of others as he sought to tighten his control over the country, instill fear in his political adversaries and create an inmate work force to accelerate Soviet industrialization.

The gulags often mixed hardened criminals with inmates whose offenses wouldn’t be punishable in other countries. Russians convicted of phony political crimes or of taking too many unexcused absences from work often served long sentences in forced labor camps doing anything from logging to mining to major construction projects.

The lucky ones survived and rejoined Soviet society. An immense number of others perished from some combination of starvation, disease, mistreatment or overexertion.

The spirit of Stalinist repression lives on in modern Russia through the penal colony system. Many of Russia’s more than 600 penal colonies stand on the sites of their gulag forerunners, mostly in sparsely populated areas where gold, coal, timber and other raw materials could be extracted.

The size of Russia combined with the remote locations of its penal colonies exacerbates the challenges of prisoner transport. Journeys from pre-trial detention facilities to far-flung penal colonies can last two weeks to a month or more because prisoners are often transported via meandering routes, depending on the passenger trains available.

Prisoners typically travel in overcrowded, windowless train carriages in conditions that Amnesty International said last year “often amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” As many as 12 prisoners and their baggage get crammed into a 3.5-square-meter transit cell that has only six and a half individual sleeping spaces. They’re issued only powdered rations and often don’t have proper access to toilets or medication.

“I suffered a lot because they said they would not take us to the toilet at night,” former prisoner Dmitry Vasiliev told Amnesty International. “Later I learnt what to do. Prisoners take plastic bags, and if they can, they take plastic bottles.”

Amnesty International also condemned Russian policy of not notifying anyone of a prisoner’s whereabouts during transport. Griner essentially disappeared into a blackhole for nearly two weeks while en route to IK-2. Neither her attorneys nor her family knew where she was or where she was going until after she arrived at her destination.

The lack of information, Amnesty International said, “puts prisoners at greater risk.” The human rights organization described a prisoner’s ability to communicate with the outside world as “one of the most important safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment.”

Just like Russia’s prisoner transport methods have scarcely changed since the Soviet era, the frequent allegations of prisoner mistreatment also bear some resemblance to the past.

In its 2021 report on Russia’s human rights practices, the U.S. State Department described conditions at Russian prisons as “often harsh and life threatening.” The State Department cited credible reports of authorities systemically torturing inmates, in some cases resulting in death or suicide. Physical and sexual abuse by guards and other inmates was also found to be “common,” as was “limited access to health care, food shortages and inadequate sanitation.”

The world got a rare glimpse at the deplorable conditions inside Russian penal colonies in 2013 when one of the founding members of the punk band Pussy Riot served time in Mordovia for “hooliganism.” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike and penned an open letter describing the abuses in her penal colony, including sleep-deprived inmates being forced to work “16 to 17 hours a day” in the sewing shop with “a day off once every month and a half.”

“As the prisoner saying goes,” Tolokonnikova wrote, “‘Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all.’”

US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence, at the Moscow regional court on October 25, 2022. - The two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women's NBA champion was detained at a Moscow airport in February after she was found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Brittney Griner is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian prisons are for oppression, not rehabilitation

If Griner had to serve her sentence in a Mordovian penal colony, Pallot said the WNBA star was fortunate to be sent to IK-2. The Oxford professor described it as Russia’s “demonstration colony,” the one the Federal Penitentiary Service encourages human rights organizations to tour and the one where Pallot was allowed to conduct most of her inmate interviews.

“That’s why they’ve smartened it up over the years,” Pallot said. “They weren’t going to take us to one where the plumbing and the radiators didn’t work.”

There might be renovated washrooms and consistent hot running water at IK-2, but scratch below the surface, and the penal colony appears to be plagued by familiar issues. Podoplelova discovered that not long ago, when an IK-2 inmate reached out to her about “slave-labor like conditions” in the colony’s sewing shop.

The client told Podoplelova that prison administrators demanded her work brigade do daily shifts of 12-to-16 hours, with only one 30-minute break for lunch. Women who bloodied their fingers in the sewing machines allegedly risked being thrown into an isolation cell or losing other privileges if they stopped working or complained about the conditions.

“A lot of colonies take contracts from the state or from private clients, and they overestimate their ability to fulfill those contracts,” Podoplelova said. “That’s why they make the women work so much. It’s impossible to meet that rate of production if the women only work general shifts.”

When Podoplelova would make the 300-mile journey from Moscow to IK-2 to check on her client in person, prison administrators usually made her wait outside in the cold for five or six hours before letting her in. Podoplelova interpreted that as administrators retaliating against her client for making a fuss to a human rights organization about her working conditions.

“The administration tried to make it harder to go and see her,” Podoplelova said. “If your client is not complaining, you’re getting a different experience.”

Whether Griner fares any better at IK-2 might depend on how she navigates the language barrier. Podoplelova said foreign prisoners often learn Russian quite quickly at a penal colony — if they find other inmates willing to help them.

How other inmates react to Griner is another potential issue for her. She’ll stand out among the inmate population as a 6-foot-9 Black woman from America, even if many of her fellow prisoners don’t recognize her as an eight-time WNBA All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

“She will certainly be seen as exotic because of her skin color, her size, her nationality and the fact that she doesn’t speak Russian,” Pallot said. “Now how that’s going to play out, I just don’t know. Other women in her dormitory could look after her, or they could make life hard for her. It’s very difficult to know which way it will be.”

At minimum, Griner’s status as a potential bargaining chip should earn her a little preferential treatment from prison administrators. A State Department source told Yahoo Sports that he believes Russia knows it has to keep Griner safe in order to strike a deal for a prisoner exchange.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has pressed Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to accept what Blinken has described as a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the U.S. government considers wrongfully detained in a Mordovian penal colony. Thus far, Russia has shown no signs of accepting that offer, believed to be a 2-for-1 swap for notorious Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

President Joe Biden expressed hope last month that Russian president Vladimir Putin would “be willing to talk more seriously” about an exchange for Griner now that U.S. midterm elections are over and Russia wouldn’t be delivering Biden a timely political win. Such a deal remains Griner’s most likely means of leaving behind IK-2’s tall fences and razor wire without serving the entirety of her nine-year sentence.

Until then, the penal colony’s communal dormitory will be Griner’s home, if you can call it that.

“In Russia, prison is meant to remain an instrument of oppression, not an instrument of rehabilitation,” Podoplelova said. “People are supposed to be afraid of going to prison.”