Brittney Griner: From forced labor to cruel guards, how Stalin's ghost still rules Russian penal colonies

It has been reported that Brittney Griner will be serving out her sentence at a Russian penal colony


                            Brittney Griner: From forced labor to cruel guards, how Stalin's ghost still rules Russian penal colonies
Brittney Griner was convicted of cannabis possession and smuggling in Russia, and was sentenced to nine years in prison (@DknMohammed/Twitter)
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WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of cannabis possession and smuggling in Russia on Thursday, August 4, and was sentenced to nine years in prison. It is not clear exactly where she will be serving out her sentence, but she will reportedly be kept at a Russian penal colony.

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According to New York Post, Griner may have to return to the female penal facility where she has spent the last six months outside of Moscow. The prison, dubbed Correctional Colony No. 1 or IK-1, is a former orphanage that was rebuilt and converted ten years ago into a pretrial detention center and prison for women. It is located in the village of Novoye Grishino and has its own sewing factory and Russian Orthodox church inside. Footage of the prison shows gray walls topped with barbed wire, and also provides a glimpse of the sewing factory. However, it is unclear if this is the prison she will be sent to.

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Reports have detailed how dangerous and inhumane a Russian penal colony can be. There were reportedly nearly 5,20,000 prisoners in the Russian prison system as of last year. Inmates mostly live in dormitories and work in factories in the colonies, Marca reported. Most of the Russian prisons and penal colonies were constructed during the Stalinist era. There have been various attempts to reform the prison system but in vain, as it still resembles the Soviet Gulag. There is a high rate of recidivism, which indicates that the prison system is inefficient on many levels. 

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Brittney Griner (Photo: @nojumper/Twitter)
Brittney Griner (@nojumper/Twitter)

A report by UnHerd claims that life inside a penal colony is dominated by dangerous and whimsical military guards, malnourishment, corporal punishment, and death. Authorities, the report says, are free to torture prisoners in order to dig out false confessions. Among various other prisoners is Russian President Vladimir Putin's political enemy, Alexander Navalny, who was transferred to Penal Colony Number 2 in the small provincial town of Pokrov last year after he was found guilty of breaking a parole violation from a previous charge of embezzlement in 2014. He has to serve two and a half years there.

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In an Instagram post at the time, he had written, “I had no idea that it was possible to arrange a real concentration camp 100km from Moscow." He added, "I think someone upstairs read Orwell’s 1984 and said: ‘Yeah, cool. Let’s do this.’” He clarified that he had “not seen any violence”, but can still “easily believe the numerous stories that, not long ago, people here were beaten to within an inch of their lives with wooden hammers.”

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Another prisoner was Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the activist group Pussy Riot, who was sentenced to two years in the Mordovia camp in 2012 for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after her group staged an illegal performance in a Moscow cathedral. She later said that once she arrived, the camp administrator assured her that they would “break” her will. She said she was fed rotten potatoes and forced to work 17-hour days. She lived in freezing conditions and often had the "privilege” to wash or visit the toilet removed. If one filled their work quotas, the quotas would be increased. If they failed, they would be punished.

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Tolokonnikova eventually demanded that their working hours be reduced to twelve hours per day. The commandant agreed because this would mean she would not be able to meet her work quota and would be punished as a result. Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike over the course of her incarceration twice. She had to be hospitalized due to severe headaches, and was given an early release.

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Ildar Dadin, another anti-Putin activist and supporter of Navalny, was jailed after publicly protesting the regime. In the course of his time in the penal colony, he was hung by his handcuffed wrists for over half an hour. He was beaten and kicked by a dozen prison guards. When he went on a hunger strike, the guards threatened him saying another inmate would rape him if he did not start eating. The Russian authorities later denied the allegations Dadin made against them after his release.

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An anti-Putin newspaper called Novaya Gazeta conducted a research that uncovered approximately 4,500 instances of systemic torture in 2018. Dmitry Pchelintsev, a member of an anti-Putin Left-wing group dubbed a “terrorist network", said he was electrocuted by members of the FSB (the Russian state’s successor organization to the KGB). "They [electrocuted] me maybe five times without questions – probably to suppress my will. Then they said: [in case] you don’t understand, you’re in the hands of the FSB. We will not play, you have to answer the questions now," he said. 

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Meanwhile, the White House confirmed that it is working on a possible prisoner swap to free Griner, as well as Paul Whelan, who was accused of being a spy in Russia and given a 14-year sentence. The Russian government reportedly wanted the US to release Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill American citizens and is serving 25 years in prison at present. 

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