What Brittney Griner faces in Russian prison camps

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What Brittney Griner faces in Russian prison camps
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Brittney Griner, the WNBA star held hostage by Russia, has been transferred to a prison camp somewhere in the country, according to her lawyers. It remains unclear which camp Griner was moved to, but testimonies from prisoners, including other Americans, describe the grim conditions she is likely to face there.

Griner had been held in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow since her arrest in February for transporting a small number of vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil.

The United States has accused Russia of using the incident to falsify large-scale drug trafficking charges against Griner in order to seize her as political bargaining chip. A court’s upholding of her 9-year sentence at the end of last month means she is now being moved to a camp somewhere outside the capital.

The camps, known as penal colonies, are often former Soviet gulag prison camps and inmates are usually held in crumbling, overcrowded barracks, sometimes with 50 to 60 people sleeping in rows of bunks.

Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine held hostage like Griner and imprisoned in a camp for nearly two years, told ABC News in 2020 that the conditions there were “Dickensian.”

“It’s pretty spooky. Pretty run down,” Whelan said then, speaking from prison. “We kind of live on top of each other.”

Prisoners only share a few toilets and are only allowed to use a shower once or twice a week, Whelan said, with no hot water the rest of the time.

Whelan is currently being held in Correctional Colony-17, a camp for foreign prisoners in Mordorvia, an area about 300 miles from Moscow known for its large number of prison camps. Trevor Reed, the other ex-US Marine who was freed in a prisoner exchange earlier this year after 986 days in detention, was held at a nearby camp.

Griner will also almost certainly be sent to a prison camp for foreign female prisoners.

FILE – WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted out of a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Russia August 4, 2022. The star imprisoned American basketball player has been transferred to a penal colony in Russia, her legal team said on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File

Whelan said the barracks are often cold in the winter as temperatures drop well below freezing outside and many prisoners are sick. Medical treatment in the camps is minimal, with prisoners regularly reporting that they have been denied requests for medical consultations for weeks and have often been denied medication to treat chronic illnesses.

Inmates are forced to work in the camps, most often sewing clothes or making other goods, sometimes including tourist souvenirs. Prisoners work eight hours a day – sometimes longer – in sweatshop-like conditions and receive a few dollars each month for their work.

A normal day, according to Whelan, sees prisoners waking up at 6 a.m. and having to do 15 minutes of physical exercise on the parade square before starting their shifts.

Endemic physical torture is well documented in Russian prisons, but most experts believe high-level inmates like Griner will be shielded from it because it would harm their usefulness as bargaining chips and embarrass authorities.

Both Reed and Whelan said they were protected from physical abuse but had been subjected to solitary confinement and other forms of psychological pressure. Reed told ABC News in May that he spent repeated 15-day stints in solitary confinement as punishment for his refusal to work for his captors. Inmates are prohibited from lying down or sometimes even sitting during the day in these cells, which are usually only a few meters long and sometimes have holes in the floor for toilets.

Whelan was placed on an escape watch list, which meant that every night for years he was woken up every two hours with a flashlight shone in his face to make sure he was still there, according to his family.

Other political prisoners described being sent to solitary confinement for offenses as minor as an unbuttoned uniform.

Despite the camp conditions, some prisoners said they were still better than those in remand centers, where prisoners are held in their cells almost 24 hours a day.

Guards are not posted in the barracks itself, and in practice much of daily prison life is organized by criminal gangs who oversee order in the barracks, current prisoners told ABC News. and old. Both Reed and Whelan described being generally treated well by their fellow inmates.

“Everyone works as a team, so there’s a kind of brotherhood,” Whelan told ABC in 2020. “The guards call me ‘Tourist,’” he said.

Reed said his frequent confrontations with prison authorities earned him the respect of other prisoners.

“I was constantly fighting and resisting the government there,” he said. “The prisoners inside the Russian prison, the criminal element there, they respected that.”

By law, prisoners should be allowed to speak regularly to family by phone, but prison officials frequently restricted Reed and Whelan’s communications for long periods of time, sometimes withholding letters and phone calls for weeks, and also preventing communication with the US Embassy. For the past few months, Whelan has been able to talk on the phone most weeks with her parents.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of the anti-Kremlin art group Pussy Riot, who spent a year and a half in a camp for a 2012 protest at a cathedral, told Reuters this week that Griner supporters should write her letters.

“Don’t leave anyone alone with this system,” she said.

ABC News

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