Shortly after the final appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug smuggling and possession was denied, WNBA champion Brittney Griner was suddenly moved to a Russian penal colony. On Nov. 2, the transfer process began, with the basketball star’s lawyers and the U.S. government unaware of her whereabouts for several days. Per ESPN, the two-time Olympic gold medalist was sent to a facility in Mordovia, which is around 210 miles east of Moscow. Though Griner’s lawyers and agent maintain that she is “trying to stay strong,” a former inmate, who is familiar with the conditions at the penal colony referred to as IK-2, has revealed what Griner is dealing with. In an interview with MSNBC, Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the feminist art activist group Pussy Riot, explained what it’s like in IK-2. She spent two years in the same penal colony for “hooliganism” after a protest by her group.
“I’m terrified that Brittney Griner was moved to IK-2,” she told MSNBC. “It’s one of the harshest colonies—it is literally the harshest colony in the whole Russian prison system.”
Tolokonnikova described the hard labor conditions as “slave-like,” explaining that inmates work “17 hours a day” sewing uniforms for Russian police and military. She suggested that the Phoenix Mercury center try not to work in the sweatshop, as old machines and a lack of medical care make it a soul-crushing process. If Griner refuses to do hard labor, Tolokonnikova said she will be sent to solitary confinement, which is better. If she’s saying solitary confinement is preferable, imagine how bad that sweatshop is.
“A lot of prisoners just cannot stand it and some of them decide to commit suicide,” Tolokonnikova said. “And, let’s say, you’re being tortured and go to prison doctors to document the fact that you’ve been tortured, obviously, they do not see anything and are not witnesses of your torture.”
While this tragic revelation about the WNBA star’s imprisonment isn’t surprising, that doesn’t make it any less devastating. Brittney Griner is an American citizen who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and is now being used as a political pawn between two superpowers.
“What I’m really scared of is Brittney hiding the fact that she is being heavily oppressed in this penal colony because that’s what happened with me,” the Pussy Riot artist added. “I was told that if I’m going to say to one single person about abuses, the whole penal colony is gonna suffer because of me. And I didn’t open my mouth for a year.”
Tolokonnikova advised Brittney to take things “minute-to-minute because you never know when you’re gonna get attacked.” She went on to add that Griner’s high-profile status may offer her a small measure of protection, saying, “I wasn’t physically tortured. They used physical force against me, just to move me places, but they didn’t beat me. They didn’t rape me. Unfortunately, rape happens in IK-2 as well.”
The Pussy Riot member’s comments come as the U.S. and Russia continue their back-and-forth discussions about the eight-time WNBA All-Star’s possible release.
“The United States, as we have said, has put a significant proposal on the table. We have followed up on that proposal and we have proposed alternatives,” Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russian state news agency RIA, per Reuters. “Unfortunately, so far the Russian Federation has not provided a serious response to those proposals.”
If that quote sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the standard answer that Biden Administration representatives have been repeating for months. I understand that the United States can’t make any moves without Russian cooperation, but I’m also exhausted with the PR party line. Perhaps, the president and his staff are making major offers behind closed doors and they can’t talk about it. If that’s the case, great, but, repeating the same thing over and over and over, gives off the impression that you’ve moved on to other issues and don’t care about Brittney Griner and her family. Now, more than ever, Brittney needs to know people are still advocating for her.