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


The U.S. authorities has condemned Russia’s choice to switch WNBA star Brittney Griner to a Russian penal colony after a courtroom’s current refusal to overturn her nine-year jail sentence for possession of a small quantity of hashish oil. 

Griner’s household and attorneys, and human rights teams, are nervous about what she may face within the Russian penitentiary system, which is notorious for its harsh circumstances and abuse of inmates. Griner’s supporters concern for her security as a Black, brazenly lesbian lady in a rustic the place each racial minorities and the LGBTQ+ group have lengthy confronted systemic persecution.

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

“I’ve by no means seen anybody who does not converse Russian inside this technique,” she mentioned after studying of Griner’s switch. “I don’t know how she will likely be, what she is going to really feel, but it surely’s fairly a troublesome expertise, and he or she should not undergo it alone.”

What’s a penal colony?

A Russian penal colony is basically a labor camp the place prisoners are saved in barracks reasonably than particular person cells. Inmates are compelled to work every day, typically with textiles.

Colonies are divided into 4 safety classes, and inmates are assigned to colonies based mostly on the severity of the crimes they’ve dedicated. Griner has been ordered to serve time in a low-security colony.

Griner’s Russian attorneys mentioned this week that they weren’t conscious of her whereabouts as she is being transported. That is normal for the drawn-out strategy of transferring people from short-term detention facilities, the place they keep as their circumstances transfer by way of the courts, to a jail or penal camp the place they serve time if convicted.

The penal colonies are a vestige of Russia’s previous: They had been inherited from the previous Soviet Union as an unlimited community of gulags. There is a excessive focus of the colonies within the distant far north and much east of the nation, as they had been intentionally positioned to punish convicts with each imprisonment, and pseudo-exile on the fringes of civilization.

Based on Russia’s Federal Penal Correction Service (FSIN), which oversees some 700 colonies throughout Russia, there are practically half-a-million folks held in these amenities this yr.

Getting there

The switch course of can take weeks. It entails shifting a convict by bus and prepare and housing them in varied detention facilities alongside the best way, generally touring a whole lot and a whole lot of miles from the preliminary detention middle.

Through the course of, recognized in Russia as “etap,” prisoners are notably susceptible because the authorities don’t inform their households or authorized representatives upfront of their remaining vacation spot, and there’s nearly no contact with the skin world as they filter by way of the system.

“Among the many worst in Europe”

The correction service has been the topic of a number of investigations by worldwide and Russian human rights teams and unbiased media retailers. These probes have revealed harsh circumstances and abuse.

A 2017 Amnesty Worldwide report described circumstances in most corrective colonies and remand prisons as “among the many worst in Europe” and advisable that Russian authorities make authorized changes to make sure that authorized representatives had been knowledgeable about plans to maneuver prisoners and to make sure that “the circumstances throughout prisoner transportation don’t quantity to merciless, inhuman or degrading therapy, together with sanitary circumstances, akin to entry to scrub water, bathroom amenities, and air flow.”

Different teams have famous that almost all FSIN amenities are outdated and require critical renovation to fulfill humane requirements of residing, highlighting issues of overcrowding and problem in sustaining primary hygiene, which frequently results in outbreaks of illnesses.

The epidemics then underscore one other urgent concern — lack of enough medical care accessible to inmates.

Trevor Reed, an American who spent greater than two years in a Russian jail earlier than he was launched earlier this yr as a part of a prisoner swap, complained that he was uncovered to a different inmate with lively tuberculosis. Reed’s household mentioned they believed he’d contracted the illness and that, regardless of coughing up blood, he didn’t obtain medical care.

Alexey Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition chief who returned to Russia in early 2021 regardless of a poisoning try on his life, has additionally complained about deteriorating well being and subpar medical care as he has suffered from extreme again ache and numbness in his leg.

In notes his attorneys share commonly on social media after visiting the jail, Navalny has described psychological strain used in opposition to him by the guards.

“I’ve to confess that the Russian jail system managed to shock me. I didn’t think about that it was attainable to rearrange an actual focus camp 100 km from Moscow,” Navalny’s first submit from jail mentioned in early 2021.

“Video cameras are all over the place, they’re watching everybody and on the slightest violation they make a report,” he continued. “I feel somebody greater up learn Orwell’s 1984 and mentioned, ‘Yeah, that is cool, let’s do that schooling by way of dehumanization.'”

Navalny has been despatched repeatedly into punitive confinement not too long ago, for violations like an unbuttoned uniform or not holding his palms behind his again.

“We have now acquired deeply disturbing details about Aleksei Navalny’s more and more harsh therapy within the strict regime penal colony the place he’s presently locked up,” Amnesty Worldwide mentioned in a September assertion. “This contains extreme penalties for purported offenses, and repeated efforts to ostracize him from different prisoners who’re reportedly not allowed to talk with and even take a look at him.”

“Russian jail authorities are utilizing the merciless strategies they’ve been refining for years to attempt to break the spirit of Alexei Navalny by making his existence within the penal colony insufferable, humiliating and dehumanizing,” Amnesty mentioned.

Cannon fodder

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner mercenary group, which President Vladimir Putin has relied on closely in varied conflicts, has been seen in movies visiting penal colonies and urging inmates to enroll as volunteers, specializing in these serving time for violent crimes.

These determined sufficient to decide on fight over the penal colonies are sometimes despatched into warzones with little to no coaching, and poorly geared up.

“The extent of coaching these folks have is extraordinarily low, they’re exhausted, as a result of the jail is just not a resort, and the self-discipline is in a really, very deplorable state,” Olga Romanova, human rights activist and director of the Russia Behind Bars group, which helps convicts, mentioned in a current interview with Present Time TV.

“They’re being despatched by Putin to simply be utilized and disposed of. By doing this, he solves two issues: he clears the minefields of Ukraine with their our bodies and reduces the social and monetary burden on the Russian price range,” she added.

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