Last week, we reported on the news that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison on charges of drug possession and smuggling.
The 31-year-old athlete was detained at a Russian airport in February, where security personnel found a small amount of hash oil in her luggage.
Griner pled guilty in the hope of receiving a lighter sentence, but the strategy seems to have had little impact on the judge’s decision.
The maximum sentence for Griner’s crimes is only 10 years.
There are hopes that the US and Russian governments will negotiate a prisoner exchange that will free lead to Griner’s freedom.
In the meantime, however, Griner will be forced to reside at a Russian penal colony.
According to a new report from People magazine, there are 35 such colonies across the country, housing an estimated 60,000 women.
In an effort to understand what sort of conditions Griner might be subjected to, the outlet spoke Ivan Melnikov, the vice president of the Russian Department of the International Human Rights Defense Committee, and Yekaterina Kalugina a renowned Russian human rights activist.
“Brittney is being held in a detention cell within a penal colony,” Melnikov says.
Melnikov explains that Griner will be forced to sleep in cramped quarters in the detention center, and her only exercise will take place in a small outdoor yard.
There’s an advantage, however, in that every day in the center counts as two days toward completing her sentence.
“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,” Melnikov adds.
The activist notes that inmates are forced to work eight hour days for minimum wage and are permitted to use their meager earnings on necessities such as soap and toothpaste.
Most of the women work as cooks or seamstresses, but there’s a chance that Griner will be permitted to choose a profession that’s more in line with her skillset.
“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,” Melnikov 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.”
Melnikov notes that conditions in the prison are squalid and tuberculosis runs rampant.
The women endure strictly regimented days in which they “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.”
“We are trying to encourage governors to use the talents of the inmates. For example, working with art,” Melnikov adds.
The activists say that Griner will have little leisure time with which communicate with the outside world.
“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,” Melnikov says.
President Biden and other US politicians have condemned the Russian government’s treatment of Griner, and supporters are hopeful that those strong words will soon translate to action.
Several outlets have reported that there have been talks of exchanging Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison after being convicted of selling guns to Colombian terrorists.
We’ll have further updates on this developing story as more information becomes available.