Crowded barracks, limited access to health care, grueling labor and abusive inmates and staff. these are just some of the things that Brittney Griner, the WNBA star sentenced to nine-and-a-half years over less than a gram of cannabis oil in a vape cartridge, could expect to find in a Russian penal colony, according to Olga Romanova, a founder of prison rights advocacy group Russia Behind Bars.
The fraught relationship between Russia and the U.S. has only worsened since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and negotiations over a potential prisoner swap for Griner have dragged on for months. “In the current political situation, the fact that she is American is certainly a disadvantage,” Romanova said. “She is obviously going to come out as a different person. We can’t know what kind of person that would be.”
Griner had been held in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow since she was detained in February for carrying a small number of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
The U.S. has accused Russia of using the incident to trump up large-scale drug smuggling charges against Griner in order to seize her as a political bargaining chip. The upholding of her 9-year sentence late last month by a court meant she is now being transferred to a camp somewhere outside the capital.
The camps, known as penal colonies, are often former Soviet gulag prison camps and inmates are usually kept in crumbling, crowded barracks, sometimes with 50 to 60 sleeping in rows of bunks.
Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held hostage like Griner and imprisoned in a camp for nearly two years, told ABC News in 2020 that conditions there were “Dickensian.” Prisoners share only a few toilets and are permitted to use a shower only once or twice a week, Whelan said, with no hot water the rest of the time. The barracks are often cold in winter as temperatures fall far below freezing outside and many prisoners are sick. Medical treatment in the camps is minimal, with prisoners routinely reporting being denied requests to see doctors for weeks and often deprived of medication to treat chronic conditions.