In Russia’s “prison country” where Brittney Griner is being held

In Russia’s “prison country” where Brittney Griner is being held


News that American basketball player Brittney Griner had arrived at the IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia, also known as Russia’s “land of prisons,” left locals quite unmoved.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was sentenced in August to nine years in prison on drug possession and trafficking charges for possessing vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil.

Griner claims she used it with her doctor’s permission to relieve pain from injuries, while her supporters say she is a geopolitical hostage.

“We usually get inmates here who are considered ‘extremely dangerous,'” said former inmate-turned-taxi driver Vitaly Doyne, 48.

Doyne, who spent six years in a penal colony in Mordovia, says he is “surprised” that a famous athlete has been sent to “such dumps”.

There are around two dozen prisons in Mordovia, a land of snowy forests and swamps around 400 kilometers south-east of Moscow.

Vitaly said all of the regions’ prisons are – unofficially – classified as “red,” meaning they are managed by the wardens themselves and inmates who act as agents.

The village of Yavas in Mordovia was founded in 1921 when the Soviet Gulag archipelago – a metaphor for the vast network of camps – was just emerging.

The economy still revolves heavily around the prisons: most residents are either current or former prison employees.

– ‘She deserves it’ –

At the local market on Saturday, most residents refused to speak to the press or said they hadn’t heard about Griner’s case.

However, a woman stopped to speak to AFP.

“The law is the same for everyone, bigwigs and ordinary people,” said Svytlana, a fifty-year-old with dyed red hair.

She refused to give her family name but continued:

“If they sent her to jail, that means she deserves it. If she behaves properly, she’ll get out early and with a clear conscience.”

The fear remains as to what treatment Griner awaits in the Mordovian penal colony.

By local standards, Griner’s prison is “normal,” said Olga Romanova, head of the organization Rus Sidyashchaya (Russia behind bars), which defends the rights of inmates in Russia.

Some detainees reported beatings at IK-2 and the working conditions were “not far from slavery,” she said.

“But there are much worse prisons” in Russia, added Romanova, who currently lives in exile in Germany.

She explained that, unlike men’s prisons, there are “no caste or hierarchy systems” among inmates in women’s colonies.

On the other hand, imprisoned women are often left to fend for themselves.

– Black, Lesbian and American –

But Brittney Griner is a special case: There is talk of a possible prisoner swap between the US and Russia that could see her return to her homeland.

As long as the negotiations are ongoing, the administration will “take care of them,” says Romanova.

“But if the negotiations stop, she is in danger.”

That Griner is “lesbian, American and black” are three other concerns, according to Romanova.

This makes them a prime target for harassment in Russian prisons, where extremely violent homophobia and racism abound and where the US is viewed as a “mortal enemy,” Romanova said.

“It’s good that she doesn’t speak Russian, she won’t be able to understand what people are saying to her,” she added.

“I think that might solve some of their problems.”

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