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Brittney Griner is being moved to a Russian penal colony. What is that, and what are they like?

Brittney Griner being moved to penal colony
Brittney Griner being moved to Russian penal colony 05:17

The U.S. government has condemned Russia's decision to transfer WNBA star Brittney Griner to a Russian penal colony after a court's recent refusal to overturn her nine-year prison sentence for possession of a small amount of cannabis oil. 

Griner's family and lawyers, and human rights groups, are worried about what she could face in the Russian penitentiary system, which is infamous for its harsh conditions and abuse of inmates. Griner's supporters fear for her safety as a Black, openly lesbian woman in a country where both racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ community have long faced systemic persecution.

Former member of the Russian protest band Pussy Riot Maria Alyokhina spent almost two years in a Russian penal colony.

"I've never seen anyone who doesn't speak Russian inside this system," she said after learning of Griner's transfer. "I have no idea how she will be, what she will feel, but it's quite a tough experience, and she shouldn't go through it alone."

What is a penal colony?

A Russian penal colony is essentially a labor camp where prisoners are kept in barracks rather than individual cells. Inmates are forced to work daily, often with textiles.

Colonies are divided into four security categories, and inmates are assigned to colonies based on the severity of the crimes they have committed. Griner has been ordered to serve time in a low-security colony.

Griner's Russian lawyers said this week that they were not aware of her whereabouts as she is being transported. That's standard for the drawn-out process of transferring individuals from temporary detention centers, where they stay as their cases move through the courts, to a prison or penal camp where they serve time if convicted.

The penal colonies are a vestige of Russia's past: They were inherited from the former Soviet Union as a vast network of gulags. There's a high concentration of the colonies in the remote far north and far east of the country, as they were deliberately located to punish convicts with both imprisonment, and pseudo-exile on the fringes of civilization.

According to Russia's Federal Penal Correction Service (FSIN), which oversees some 700 colonies across Russia, there are nearly half-a-million people held in these facilities this year.

Getting there

The transfer process can take weeks. It involves moving a convict by bus and train and housing them in various detention centers along the way, sometimes traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles from the initial detention center.

During the process, known in Russia as "etap," prisoners are particularly vulnerable as the authorities do not inform their families or legal representatives in advance of their final destination, and there is virtually no contact with the outside world as they filter through the system.

"Among the worst in Europe"

The correction service has been the subject of multiple investigations by international and Russian human rights groups and independent media outlets. Those probes have revealed harsh conditions and abuse.

A 2017 Amnesty International report described conditions in most corrective colonies and remand prisons as "among the worst in Europe" and recommended that Russian authorities make legal adjustments to ensure that legal representatives were informed about plans to move prisoners and to ensure that "the conditions during prisoner transportation do not amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including sanitary conditions, such as access to clean water, toilet facilities, and ventilation."

Other groups have noted that most FSIN facilities are outdated and require serious renovation to meet humane standards of living, highlighting problems of overcrowding and difficulty in maintaining basic hygiene, which often leads to outbreaks of diseases.

The epidemics then underscore another pressing concern — lack of adequate medical care available to inmates.

Trevor Reed, an American who spent more than two years in a Russian prison before he was released earlier this year as part of a prisoner swap, complained that he was exposed to another inmate with active tuberculosis. Reed's family said they believed he'd contracted the disease and that, despite coughing up blood, he did not receive medical care.

Alexey Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader who returned to Russia in early 2021 despite a poisoning attempt on his life, has also complained about deteriorating health and subpar medical care as he has suffered from severe back pain and numbness in his leg.

In notes his lawyers share regularly on social media after visiting the prison, Navalny has described psychological pressure used against him by the guards.

"I have to admit that the Russian prison system managed to surprise me. I did not imagine that it was possible to arrange a real concentration camp 100 km from Moscow," Navalny's first post from prison said in early 2021.

"Video cameras are everywhere, they are watching everyone and at the slightest violation they make a report," he continued. "I think someone higher up read Orwell's 1984 and said, 'Yeah, that's cool, let's do this education through dehumanization.'"

Navalny has been sent repeatedly into punitive confinement recently, for violations like an unbuttoned uniform or not keeping his hands behind his back.

"We have received deeply disturbing information about Aleksei Navalny's increasingly harsh treatment in the strict regime penal colony where he is currently locked up," Amnesty International said in a September statement. "This includes severe penalties for purported offenses, and repeated efforts to ostracize him from other prisoners who are reportedly not allowed to speak with or even look at him."

"Russian prison authorities are using the cruel methods they have been refining for years to try and break the spirit of Alexei Navalny by making his existence in the penal colony unbearable, humiliating and dehumanizing," Amnesty said.

Cannon fodder

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner mercenary group, which President Vladimir Putin has relied on heavily in various conflicts, has been seen in videos visiting penal colonies and urging inmates to sign up as volunteers, focusing on those serving time for violent crimes.

Those desperate enough to choose combat over the penal colonies are often sent into warzones with little to no training, and poorly equipped.

"The level of training these people have is extremely low, they are exhausted, because the prison is not a resort, and the discipline is in a very, very deplorable state," Olga Romanova, human rights activist and director of the Russia Behind Bars group, which helps convicts, said in a recent interview with Current Time TV.

"They are being sent by Putin to just be utilized and disposed of. By doing this, he solves two problems: he clears the minefields of Ukraine with their bodies and reduces the social and financial burden on the Russian budget," she added.

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