Brittney Griner case: Russian penal colonies are leftovers from infamous Soviet-era gulags

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Aug. 5 (UPI) — When WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted on drug charges Thursday, she was not merely sentenced to nine years in a normal jail or prison. She was given time in a Russian penal colony, which is quite different than a normal correctional facility.

Russia’s penal colonies are descendants of the notorious Soviet-era gulags where prisoners have been subjected to harsh treatment and poor conditions. Prisoners in the system have been beaten by other inmates, endured torture and forced to watch Russian propaganda for hours every day in what’s known as “awareness raising.”

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Following several days of Griner’s trial, which stemmed from two vape cartridges that were found in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February, the judge on Thursday basically gave prosecutors the sentence they asked for — nine years in a penal colony for the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medalist.

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The cartridges contained cannabis oil, which Griner has a valid medical prescription for. However, the substance is illegal in Russia and although she was found to have less than 2 grams of the oil, the court ruled Thursday that she’d intentionally tried to smuggle it into the country. Her attorneys said after the verdict that the court ignored all the evidence and basically accepted everything prosecutors argued.

Griner was in Russia to play professional basketball, as many WNBA stars do to earn more income. Now, it’s at least possible that she won’t be returning to the United States anytime soon.

Unless she becomes part of a prisoner exchange, which has been discussed at the highest levels of President Joe Biden‘s administration, Griner will now spend years at one of Russia’s penal colonies — which are also known as corrective labor colonies.

The penal colonies are the most common type of prison in Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, making up all but eight of the country’s nearly 700 penitentiaries, according to The New York Times, and they are often used to house political prisoners.

Many of the Russian prisons, including Penal Colony Number 14 in Mordovia, rest on the sites of former gulags — a Russian acronym for “Main Camp Directorate” — and many buildings and facilities in the penal colonies date back to the time of the USSR.

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The conditions at the penal colonies differ, however, and the Center for Eastern Studies identifies four different types, or “regimes” — settlements, ordinary colonies, strict regime colonies and special regime colonies.

Griner is escorted to the courtroom on Thursday to hear the verdict in her drug case. The court found her guilty and sentenced her to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE

Settlements are the least strict, where inmates are allowed to wear civilian clothing, move freely, are housed in large barracks and can leave frequently to meet with relatives. Ordinary regime penal colonies feature stricter supervision from guards, restricted movement and large barracks with up to 150 beds each. Strict and special regime colonies are the most restrictive, where inmates are kept in locked cells with 20-50 other prisoners and are under constant supervision.

It’s not yet clear which of the four Griner is headed to.

“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere,” high-profile Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who’s also serving nine years, said in an interview with The New York Times.

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“There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

Yekaterina Samutsevich — a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who was sentenced to two years in a penal colony for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for staging a punk prayer in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012 — said there is no hot water, warm clothes or medicine at Russian penal colonies.

Prisoners there are also required to work jobs that often include producing clothes, textiles and food and performing construction work. As many as 40% of prisoners are paid meagerly for the labor, which is also used as a requirement for early release and for receiving benefits such as television time and visits from relatives.

Pussy Riot band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described working 17-hour days at a penal colony and said that failing to meet work quotas result in harsh punishments for prisoners, such as being barred from bathing or using the restroom.

Tolokonnikova recalled that a commandant once agreed with her request to cut her brigade’s work schedule to just 12 hours a day, knowing they would ultimately face punishment for failing to meet their work quotas. She was ultimately released after she was hospitalized following a hunger strike.

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Longtime Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2010 that author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s descriptive assessment of Russian prisons in The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading in Russian schools. Many interpreted the remark as a warning to possible dissenters.