What Brittney Griner's Life In Russia Prison Is Really Like

In February 2022, WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for allegedly attempting to bring cartridges containing a cannabis derivative into the country (via Reuters). She has insisted that she uses the substance to treat pain and not recreationally; she has further insisted that she had no intention of breaking Russian law. As of July 26, 2022, she has pleaded guilty to those charges and is awaiting sentencing; she faces as much as 10 years in prison.

Griner's arrest appears within the context of toxic relations between the U.S. and Russia and, in particular, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As The Guardian reported, national security advisor, author, and foreign policy analyst Evelyn Farkas suggested that the Russians would use Griner as a pawn in some scheme or another. "It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful," Farkas said.

Meanwhile, Griner remains incarcerated in Russia, which is at once known for notoriously brutal prisons and a flawed justice system. Nevertheless, by most reports, she could be doing a lot worse.

Correctional Colony No. 1

There are worse Russian prisons to be incarcerated in than Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, as The New York Times reports. It's not a labor camp in Siberia, for example; rather, it's a former orphanage just outside of Moscow. It has a church — a Russian Orthodox church — as well as a sewing factory, although whether or not Brittney Griner has been put to work sewing is not clear. Otherwise, it's not unlike any other prison, in Russia or otherwise: the walls are dull and gray, a statue (of Vladimir Lenin) is in the courtyard.

David Whelan, whose brother, Paul Whelan, has done time in a Russian prison, said that conditions are still harsh. Some cells lack toilets, offering instead a simple hole in the ground. Whelan also noted that Russian prisons are run either by the guards or the prisoners, and you want to be in one run by the guards. Whelan also noted that conditions for women are better — however one wants to define "better."

Nevertheless, as recently as July 26, Griner said that she has "no complaints" about her life in detention (via TMZ). In the same message, she also wished her wife the best of luck on her upcoming bar exam.

Dostoevsky, Infrequent Showers

Brittney Griner's daily life inside the correctional facility where she's housed is, by all reports, not appreciably different from those of the other women incarcerated in the same facility, according to The New York Times. Further still, the conditions in the prison are, in some ways at least, not entirely different from a prison in the U.S.

With long days with nothing to do, Griner has been making use of the prison's library, although not unexpectedly, the books within are in Russian, which Griner doesn't speak. Somehow, she's managed to get ahold of an English translation of a Dostoevsky work, which she's been reading. Her cell also has a functional toilet, which is a rarity in Russian prisons, and she watches TV, although all of the channels are in Russian. She and other prisoners are also able to order food and store it in a refrigerator. Unfortunately, she is only allowed to shower a few times per week.

A woman whose daughter had done time in a Russian prison suggested that Griner find a priest. The woman said that her daughter was allowed a visit with a rabbi, and that Griner may be able to find some comfort and break up the monotony of her days by finding a cleric who can counsel her.

What's Next For Brittney Griner

As of July 26, 2022, Brittney Griner's future remains uncertain. In a worst-case scenario, she'll be sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence and could be behind bars in Russia for a decade or more. Further still, Yaffa Issachar, the mother of an Israeli-American woman who did time in Russia for allegedly smuggling cannabis into the country, said that all her daughter was able to see from her cell was the clouds. Issachar also suggested that Griner may be at risk for persecution in her Russian prison because she's gay, and Russia's attitudes toward gay rights are less progressive (via The New York Times).

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is angling for Griner's release, and the Russians may be keen to make a prisoner swap. Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who is currently incarcerated in the U.S., has come up as a possible prisoner to be swapped (per the New York Post), and the aforementioned Paul Whelan may also figure in the exchange.