Brittney Griner has lived a sad life in a Russian penal colony


Drastic manual labor, poor hygiene and no access to medical care: these are the conditions awaiting US basketball star Brittney Griner in a Russian penal colony after losing an appeal against her nine-year drug sentence last week.

The world knows Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist group Pussy Riot, who spent almost two years as a prisoner during a punk protest against President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.

The first thing to understand, as 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 town, like a Gulag labor camp,” said Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, referring to the vast penal network established to isolate and crush prisoners.

“Actually, it’s a work field, because according to the law all prisoners have to work. The rather cynical thing about this job 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 area where inmates made clothes and gloves, and a “living quarters” where Alyokhina said 80 women lived in one room with three toilets and no hot water.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, could soon be transferred to a colony, absent an appeal or agreement between Washington and Moscow, to be exchanged for a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States – the possibility has been raised. months ago but it is still not implemented.

In a Pussy Riot show that has toured the world and is now playing in Britain, Alyokhina relives memories of her time in prison: snowy camp yards, plank beds, long periods of solitary confinement and punishment for minor infractions. a coat without buttons or a poorly attached label.

He was constantly videotaped by prison guards “because I’m a notorious provocateur,” he added.

Russia’s prison service did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

A regime similar to that experienced by Alyokhina a decade ago was described by a recent prisoner of the Yelena penal colony.

Yelena, 34, spent eight years in a Siberian colony after being convicted of drug possession.

She said she was paid about 1000 rubles ($16) a month to work 10-12 hours a day in a sewing workshop.

“Girls with a strong and athletic frame are often given heavier jobs. For example, they load sacks of flour for a prison bakery or unload mountains of coal,” he said.

Prisoners can be punished for inexplicable “crimes” such as placing a wristwatch on the bedside table.

The final punishment was solitary confinement, known as the “Vatican.”

“Just as the Vatican is a state within a state, solitary confinement is a prison within a prison,” Yelena said.

A gynecologist made a monthly visit to his colony, where more than 800 women were incarcerated.

“You do the math, what are the chances of going to the doctor? Almost zero,” he said.

It is more difficult for a foreigner with little or no Russian 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 given a 15-minute phone call to his parents every day, is unable to call other family or friends, and has no access to email or no internet access

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

Prisoners sleep in barracks-like buildings and access to many necessities, including medication, depends on paying bribes to prison guards, he said.

Conditions may be subject to the whims of guards, guards, or senior inmates.

Paul seems to use his military training “to get through each day, to know which battles to fight and which battles not to fight,” David Whelan said.

“The phone calls to our parents are recorded. His letters were returned before he was released. 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 offered a rare ray of hope, and urged people to help Griner in this way.

He said that they should use machine translation and send the text in English and Russian to get past the prison censor more easily.

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