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Brittney Griner facing 'terrible' life at remote penal colony in Russia

David Wharton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

The inmates at IK-2 penal colony rise at 6 a.m. each day for a breakfast of milk porridge, bread and tea. Soon they leave their barracks at this aging facility about 300 miles southeast of Moscow, in the isolated republic of Mordovia.

Long days are spent in forced labor, working at sewing machines, with only a short break for lunch. By nightfall, prisoners are fed dinner and allowed an hour or less of free time before going to sleep in dormitories crowded with scores of bunk beds. The routine reportedly can stretch for weeks on end with no days off.

It is unclear if one of the newest arrivals — American basketball star Brittney Griner — will take part in this strict regimen or receive special treatment, but experts familiar with the criminal justice system in Russia paint a worrisome picture.

"Her life will be very difficult," said Marina Alexandrova, a University of Texas associate professor who lectures on the history of Russian prisons. "It will be terrible."

Among Russia's hundreds of prisons, the 21 facilities clustered in Mordovia are especially notorious. Russia Behind Bars, a humanitarian group based in Moscow, alleges that labor conditions at the IK-2 violate national law, medical care is limited and substandard food provides little sustenance, especially during long, cold winters.

The world got its first look inside such colonies in 2013 when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the punk band Pussy Riot, served time in another part of Mordovia for "hooliganism."


Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike and wrote an open letter that said sleep-deprived workers, pushed to their limits by unrealistic production quotas, endured intimidation and beatings. Toilets overflowed and inmates were left outside in the cold as punishment.

"As the prisoner saying goes," Tolokonnikova stated, "'Those who never did time in Mordovia never did time at all.'"

The events that led Griner there began in mid-February when the 32-year-old Phoenix Mercury center arrived in Moscow to join UMMC Ekaterinburg, a club team that pays her a reported $1 million-plus to play during the WNBA offseason. Airport authorities searched her luggage and found two vaping cartridges with traces of cannabis oil.

Drug smuggling charges were soon overshadowed by world events as Russia invaded Ukraine, with Griner viewed as a political pawn. The U.S. State Department deemed her to be "wrongfully detained," opening the way for the Biden administration to pursue a prisoner exchange. She was convicted in August, sentenced to nine years and eventually transported to IK-2, where her legal team recently visited.


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