Brittney Griner faces a bleak life in a Russian penal colony

Brittney Griner faces a bleak life in a Russian penal colony

  • Griner faces jail time after losing drug appeal
  • In the Russian system, prisoners are forced to work long hours for little pay
  • The threat of severe punishment for breaking trivial rules
  • The language barrier makes the ordeal even more difficult for foreigners

LONDON, Nov 3 (Reuters) – Strenuous manual labor, poor hygiene and a lack of access to medical care await American basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian penal colony after she lost her appeal against a nine-year drug sentence last week.

It’s a world familiar to Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist art ensemble Pussy Riot who spent nearly two years in prison for her role in a 2012 Moscow cathedral punk protest against President Vladimir Putin.

The first thing to understand, Alyokhina said in an interview, is that a penal colony is not an ordinary prison.

“This is not a building with cells. This looks like a strange village, like a Gulag labor camp,” she said, referring to the vast penal network set up by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to isolate and crush prisoners.

“It’s actually a labor camp because by law all prisoners have to work. The rather cynical thing about this business is that the prisoners usually sew police uniforms and uniforms for the Russian army, for almost no pay.”

The colony was divided between a factory section where prisoners made clothes and gloves and a “living zone” where Alyokhina said 80 women lived in one room with only three toilets and no hot water.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, could soon be transferred to the colony in the absence of a further appeal or an agreement between Washington and Moscow to exchange her for a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States – a possibility that has been floated for months but has yet to materialize.


In Pussy Riot, which has toured the world and is now playing in Britain, Alyokhina relives memories of her time as a prisoner – snowy prison yards, plank-like beds, long periods in solitary confinement and punishment for minor infractions such as unbuttoning a coat or bad attached name tag.

The prison guards were constantly filming her “because I am a ‘known provocateur'”, she added.

The Russian prison service did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

A recent penal colony inmate, Jelena, described a similar regime experienced by Alyokhina a decade ago.

Jelena, 34, served eight years in a Siberian colony after being convicted of drug possession. She said she was paid about 1,000 rubles ($16) a month to work 10-12 hours a day in a sewing workshop.

“Girls with strong, athletic builds are often given much harder jobs. For example, they load sacks of flour for the prison bakery or unload mountains of coal,” she said.

Prisoners could face punishment for inexplicable “offences” such as placing a wristwatch on a bedside table. The final sanction was solitary confinement, known as the “Vatican”.

“Like the Vatican is a state within a state, solitary confinement is a prison within a prison,” Jelena said.

A gynecologist visited her colony monthly, where more than 800 women were imprisoned.

“You do the math, what are the chances that you will actually get to the doctor? Practically zero,” she said.


For a foreigner who knows little or no Russian, it is more difficult to navigate the system and cope with isolation.

The brother of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who is serving 16 years in a Russian penal colony on espionage charges he denies, said he is allowed a 15-minute phone call with his parents every day, that he cannot call other family members or friends, and has no access to e-mail or the Internet.

David Whelan said his brother had to work at least eight hours a day, six days a week, doing menial jobs such as making buttonholes, which caused him repetitive strain.

Prisoners sleep in barrack-like buildings, and access to many necessities, including medicine, depends on paying bribes to prison guards, he said. Conditions can be highly dependent on the whims of guards, wardens or senior inmates.

Paul seems to be using his military training “to just get by day by day, to figure out which battles to fight and which not to fight,” David Whelan said.

“His phone calls even to our parents were recorded. All his letters were translated before they went out. So you know everything you do is being watched and you really have no sense of individuality.”

Alyokhina said receiving cards and letters from the outside world offers a rare glimmer of hope, and urged people to support Griner in that way.

She said that they should use machine translation and send the text in English and Russian to get it through the prison censorship.

“Don’t leave someone alone with this system,” she said. “It’s completely inhumane, it’s a Gulag, and when you feel alone there, it’s much easier to give up.”

Reporting by Mark Trevelyan in London, Philip Lebedev in Tbilisi and Simon Lewis in Washington; additional reporting by Caleb Davis and Humeyra Pamuk Editing by Gareth Jones

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Mark Trevelyan

Thomson Reuters

Lead writer on Russia and the CIS. He has worked as a journalist on 7 continents and reported from 40+ countries, with postings in London, Wellington, Brussels, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. Covered the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Security correspondent from 2003 to 2008. Speaks French, Russian and (rusty) German and Polish.

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