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Brittney Griner: WBNA star facing homophobia, racism and 16-hour working days in Russian penal colony

The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, where they spend long hours laboring on sewing machines
UPDATED NOV 29, 2022
Brittney Griner will face 'slavery-like' conditions in a Russian penal colony (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Brittney Griner will face 'slavery-like' conditions in a Russian penal colony (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

MORDOVIA REPUBLIC, RUSSIA: WNBA star Brittney Griner has begun her prison sentence in one of Russia's most notorious prisons, where she will spend nine years behind bars. The prison conditions are described as inhumane where she will be subjected to racism and homophobia, including a grueling 16-hour workday.

The Olympic gold medalist will serve her sentence at the penal colony in Yavas, about 270 miles southeast of Moscow in the federal subject of Mordovia. Reports from people who've survived the camp describe it as 'slavery-like,' with almost non-existent medical care. The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, where they're forced to work for hours on sewing machines. A notorious women's prison in Mordovia, IK -14, is located just seven minutes from Yavas.


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Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during the first half of the WNBA game at the Footprint Center on August 31, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Incarcerated American basketball star Brittney Griner has reportedly been taken to a penal colony in Mordovia (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As the inmates say, ''If you haven't done time in Mordovia, you haven't done time,'' Musician and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova who spend two years there wrote in a letter published in 2013. She described IK-14 as having "slavery-like conditions," where she worked in a sewing shop for "16 to 17 hours a day" while getting "four hours of sleep a night," reported Daily Mail. "Beatings and torture are common," remembering her time, the founder of the band Pussy Riot said. Veronika Krass, also a former IK-14 prisoner said a sign reading "welcome to hell" greets new inmates at the penal colony.


To deal with the rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, the guards enlisted stray cats, which were later discarded into furnaces to keep their numbers down, according to a 2019 Radio Free Europe report. Inmates have lost their fingers working long hours at their sewing machines. Even though Griner will be away on constant work, it's not clear if there will be a bed that can support the six-foot-eight basketball player. Griner was sentenced in August following her February arrest at an airport in Moscow when Russian authorities reported she was caught entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She was transferred from the detention center in Iksha on the 4th of November.

'When the girls find out that they're going to Mordovia, they cut their wrists, do everything possible, get sick, swallow nails, just so they don't have to go there. Its reputation is known, especially after the letter by Nadia Tolokonnikova," said Gelena Alekseyeva, a former deputy minister who was sentenced in 2013 to 3 1/2 years in prison for abetting commercial bribery. Founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931, Yavas is one of the largest hubs in the Russian network of prisons and penal colonies. It currently facilitates three institutions, including a women's colony, a men's colony, and a co-ed colony. 

Even some Russians are shocked that Griner was sentenced there, with one ex-convict saying the prison is filled with "detainees deemed particularly dangerous''. He added that he was "surprised" a famous athlete would be sent to "such a dump." "Despite the fact she is alone and now nearing her ninth month in detention separated from her loved ones, she (Griner) is trying to stay strong," representatives told the source.