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Brittney Griner Is At Risk Of Facing Harsh Treatment In Russia’s Brutal Prison System

Brittney Griner faces the possibility of spending  nine and a half years in Russian’s brutal prison system. The WNBA All-Star, who is convicted of drug charges after customs agents found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage, could be subjected to harsh labor and cruel treatment if the U.S. fails to free her from the Russian penal colonies, VICE News reports.

Dr. Monika Kareniauskaite, a research fellow teaching post-Soviet history, law, gender, and criminality at Yale University, spoke to VICE News and explained the conditions of Russia’s prisons.

“There are multiple human rights abuses and very bad conditions for prisoners,” Kareniauskaite told the media outlet.

Russia’s 650 penal institutions, which are traditional penal colonies, consist of barrack and dorm-style detention complexes where incarcerated people face hard labor. People who face drug charges in Russia are usually sent to a penal colony.

The U.S. Department of State published a 100-page human rights report in 2021 to expose the harsh reality of Russia’s prisons. The report outlined overcrowding, poor sanitation and heating and food shortages as some of the concerns. Additionally, the document highlighted issues of torture and sexual violence. People who are not heterosexual face an even greater risk of abuse, the report adds.

“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,” Kareniauskaite said. “But as the nongovernmental organizations report[ed] later, most of the reforms actually failed and didn’t make a significant change.”

Russian prison sociologist Olga Zeveleva said the penal colonies are usually located far from the nearest city, making it more difficult for local activists to monitor the abuse.

“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,” Zeveleva told VICE News.

As Blavity previously reported, the U.S. has offered to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer, in exchange for Griner and Paul Whelan, another American jailed in Russia. Griner could be heading to a penal colony if the U.S. fails to make a deal soon.

Zeveleva said Griner, who is an openly gay basketball star, has other identities as well that could make her more susceptible to harsh treatment.

“First and foremost, she will be perceived as an American. Second, she’ll be perceived as a high-profile prisoner,” Zeveleva said.

Griner is currently held in one of Russia’s remand facilities while her appeal is being processed.

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