Here’s What a Russian Penal Colony Will Be Like for Brittney Griner

Brittney Griner will do her nine-and-a-half-year sentence in what's been called a Russian “concentration camp” notorious for abuses.
Basketball star Brittney Griner is set to do time in a Russian penal colony.
Basketball star Brittney Griner is set to do time in a Russian penal colony. Photos by AFP via Getty Images and AP Photo

Brittney Griner, the WNBA All-Star convicted of drug smuggling and possession after customs agents found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage, is facing nine and a half years in a Russian penal colony. While the sentence is harsh, the worst of Griner's stay in Russia’s prison system could be yet to come if the U.S. and Russia don’t come to terms on a prisoner swap soon.


Much like American prisons in the Western Hemisphere, Russian penal colonies have a reputation for being some of the worst prison systems on their side of the globe. These remote facilities are notorious for their poor treatment of prisoners, partly due to brutal firsthand accounts from high-profile anti-government activists such as attorney Alexei Navalny and Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

Toloknnikova, convicted in 2012 of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” for performing one of their songs at a cathedral in Moscow, recalled 16-hour days working in sewing shops on broken machines for pennies a month, grossly underequipped “hygiene rooms” often rendered useless by faulty plumbing, and hundreds of prisoners queuing up to use the handful of showers available. 

Last year, Navalny, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on embezzlement charges, told his attorney that his facility was a “friendly concentration camp,” where prisoners like himself are constantly monitored, with guards even barging into his cell to film him sleeping. Navalny has since been sentenced to nine years in prison on contempt and fraud charges.


Both Toloknnikova and Navalny also spoke of rampant corruption, violence from guards and prisoners, and a general sense of fear among inmates.

“There are multiple human rights abuses and very bad conditions for prisoners,” Dr. Monika Kareniauskaite, a research fellow teaching post-Soviet history, law, gender, and criminality at Yale University, told VICE News.

What exactly is a penal colony?

Almost all of the 650 penal institutions in Russia are traditional penal colonies: barrack and dorm-style detention complexes where inhabitants carry out hard labor. It’s typical for people convicted on drug charges like Griner’s to be sent to a penal colony. Though inmates who stay at these facilities are classified as less dangerous than prisoners who spend a majority of their incarceration in cells, the colony conditions aren’t typically better.

According to a nearly 100-page human rights report conducted by the U.S. Department of State last year, overcrowding, poor sanitation and heating, and food shortages count among the system’s biggest problems. The report also found that systemic abuses, including torture and sexual violence flagged by local human rights groups, particularly against political prisoners, continue to be ignored. 

Prisoners suspected of being anything other than heterosexual are also likely to face abuse as well. In 2020, a Chechen prisoner was reportedly suffocated and subjected to electrical shock for hours after security guards suspected him of being gay.


The poor conditions are a hangover from the gulags, or criminal detention camps that existed in the days of the Soviet Union, according to Kareniauskaite.

“There were a lot of attempts in the 1990s to introduce Russian lawyers, criminal justice system workers, and police with Western legal concepts and traditions,” she said. “But as the nongovernmental organizations report[ed] later, most of the reforms actually failed and didn't make a significant change.”

Penal colonies are typically located hundreds of kilometers from the nearest city, an infrastructural holdover of imperial Russia, when exile was synonymous with serious punishment from the government. As a result, many of these abuses are difficult for local activists to monitor, according to Russian prison sociologist Olga Zeveleva.

“There were not enough human rights defenders to go around before already,” Zeveleva told VICE News. “But if we look at the situation today, with a completely destroyed civil society and activist space in Russia against the backdrop of [President Vladimir] Putin's repression, there's not a lot of hope that human rights activists will come and help someone.”

How will Griner be treated?

On Monday, Griner’s attorneys filed an appeal for her prison sentence, according to Russian news agency Tass. The appeals process is expected to take months, according to her attorney Alexander Boykov.

Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia about potentially swapping Griner and ex-U.S. Marine Paul Whelan for a Russian in U.S. custody are ongoing. The leading candidate seems to be Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who’s currently serving 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who planned to kill Americans.

If a trade doesn’t happen before the Olympian goes to a penal colony, her identity as an openly gay, six-foot-nine Black woman in a country known to mistreat both people of color and the LGBTQ community will affect her treatment. But not in a way that many Americans would expect, Zeveleva said.

“There are other identities that I expect to be more acutely perceived in Russian prisons than her racial identity,” Zeveleva said. “First and foremost, she will be perceived as an American. Second, she'll be perceived as a high-profile prisoner.”

Zeveleva said that by the nature of her status, it’s unlikely people will target her. But there will be a sense of fascination among other prisoners, and the facility’s administration will likely keep close watch over her through informants among her dormmates in the colony.

“That’s not to paint this pretty picture of an accepting Russian prison where everybody is fine with everything and there’s a flourishing gay community there,” Zeveleva added. “If a prison officer or a prisoner [with] a lot of power in prison society chooses to target a person, they can choose any aspect of their identity.”

The continued activism around Griner’s arrest and imprisonment provides some hope. Combined with the nasty reputation of Russian penal colonies, U.S.negotiations efforts will likely become even more urgent—which is good news for Griner.

“Russia has one of the most abhorrent prison systems in the world, [which] definitely affects the negotiation process,” Zeveleva said.

For now, Griner will remain in one of Russia’s remand facilities until her appeals process is complete. Though her overseas incarceration has been criticized by athletes and politicians like President Joe Biden, her punishment is not far removed from the experiences of thousands of Black Americans convicted of drug offenses here.

Follow Trone Dowd on Twitter.