‘Welcome to hell’: Brittney Griner is moved to a penal colony in central Russia


Imprisoned American basketball star Brittney Griner has reportedly been taken to a penal colony in Mordovia, a Russian region roughly 300 miles southeast of Moscow, to serve her nine-year sentence on drug charges.

Griner has been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters. 

A State Department Spokesperson could not confirm that report to DailyMail.com, saying that Russia has refused to share any details with the US Embassy. 

‘We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team,’ a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to DailyMail.com. ‘However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a US citizen, which we strongly protest. The Embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location.’

Griner was sentenced in August following her February arrest at an airport in Moscow, when Russian authorities say she was caught entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had been at a detention center near Moscow until November 4, when she was moved to an undisclosed prison.

It has been two weeks since any information about her whereabouts have surfaced.

Founded for the Soviet gulag system in 1931, Yavas remains one of the largest hubs in the Russian network of prisons and penal colonies. It currently has three institutions, including a women’s colony, a men’s colony, and a co-ed colony. 

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted from a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 4, 2022. The jailed American basketball star has been moved to a penal colony in Russia, her legal team said Wednesday

Imprisoned American basketball star Brittney Griner has reportedly been taken to a penal colony in Mordovia, a Russian region roughly 270 miles southeast of Moscow, to serve her nine-year sentence on drug charges

Griner has been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters

Griner has been moved to IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters

Women in Russian penal colonies have claimed they're used as slave labor, working for 17 or 18 hours a day

Women in Russian penal colonies have claimed they’re used as slave labor, working for 17 or 18 hours a day 

One notorious women’s facility in Mordovia, IK-14, is located just seven minutes from Yavas. 

The notorious penal colony is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines. To deal with the rat population, the guards enlisted stray cats, which were later discarded into furnaces to keep their numbers down, according to a 2019 Radio Free Europe report. 

Veronika Krass, one former IK-14 prisoner, told Radio Free Europe that a sign reading ‘welcome to hell’ greets new inmates at the penal colony. 

Notable political prisoners have served time at IK-14, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a founding member of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

‘As the inmates say, ”If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time,” Tolokonnikova wrote in a letter published in 2013.

She described IK-14 as having ‘slavery-like conditions,’ where she worked in a sewing shop for ’16 to 17 hours a day’ while getting ‘four hours of sleep a night.’

Notable political prisoners have served time at IK-14, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (pictured), a founding member of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin

Notable political prisoners have served time at IK-14, including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (pictured), a founding member of the punk group, Pussy Riot, and a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin 

Tolokonnikova’s description of IK-14 was characterized as ‘correct’ by Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) director, Valery Maksimenko. In December of 2019, Maksimenko requested prosecutors open an investigation into slave-labor accusations at the facility in Mordovia. Ultimately IK-14 director, Yury Kupriyanov, was dismissed, along with other officials.

‘When the girls find out that they’re going to Mordovia, they cut their wrists, do everything possible: get sick, swallow nails, just so they don’t have to go there. Its reputation is known, especially after the letter by Nadia Tolokonnikova,’ said Gelena Alekseyeva, a former deputy minister who was sentenced in 2013 to 3 1/2 years in prison for abetting commercial bribery.  

Alekseyeva served some of her sentence at IK-14, where she worked in the sewing shop, cutting fabric, according to Radio Free Europe. 

‘The saw cuts the fabric along a chalk line continuously,’ Alekseyeva said. ‘God forbid, if the saw cuts somewhere else [and not on the chalk line], then all 100 cuts are ruined. I can say that fingers on the saw are chopped off, cut, blood flows. This is definitely unsafe, requiring some training. I was saved by the cons themselves.’

Although Griner's specific penal colony is IK-2, one notorious women's facility in the region, IK-14, is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines

Although Griner’s specific penal colony is IK-2, one notorious women’s facility in the region, IK-14, is known as a rat-infested sweatshop for prisoners, some of whom have lost fingers during long hours at their sewing machines

A constant issue facing prisoners comes from the rats, who populate in and around the toilets. 

‘Mice lived with us,’ Alekseyeva said. ‘Rats lived with us in the industrial zone. Before you went into the bathroom, you needed to knock — there were special poles for that. So that the rats would scatter, you understand.’

Rats were kept in check with the help of stray cats, whose own numbers began to rise. 

‘They [the kittens] are collected in a sack and burned in the furnace,’ Alekseyeva added, saying the felines were used by guards as a bargaining chip with prisoners. 

‘There is nothing more dear to the inmates than these kittens and cats,’ she continued. ‘But they can also be used for punishment. So, if you sewed badly today then we will burn the cats. They don’t punish one or two people — they punish a whole brigade.’

And prisoners could be punished for seemingly anything. 

When Krass said she fell behind in her sewing quota, guards offered her a ‘spot outside,’ suggesting she would be left in the 20-degree cold overnight unless she caught up. 

Violence remains a constant threat, according to Yelena Federova, who was convicted of murder at age 20 and was sentenced to 12 years. 

‘I repeatedly saw beaten women — young and old,’ Federova told Radio Free Europe. ‘They cried, begging for help. I went to [prison director] Yury Kupriyanov to put an end to this madness — end the beatings and uphold the law.

A probe was opened, but went nowhere when Federova failed to produce witnesses. 

‘They were afraid to open their mouths again, fearing they’d be killed this time,’ Fedorova said. 

A framegrab taken from a handout video taken on August 17, 2012, and released by the press-service of Russia's Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (UFSIN) for the Republic of Mordovia shows a view of IK-14 penal colony in Zubovo-Polyansky District of Mordovia, some 440 km east of Moscow, where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the two jailed members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot were held

A framegrab taken from a handout video taken on August 17, 2012, and released by the press-service of Russia’s Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments (UFSIN) for the Republic of Mordovia shows a view of IK-14 penal colony in Zubovo-Polyansky District of Mordovia, some 440 km east of Moscow, where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the two jailed members of feminist punk band Pussy Riot were held 

Much of what is known in the west about the penal colony conditions in Russia comes from political prisoners, such as Vladimir Putin rival Alexei Navalny, who is currently being imprisoned at Corrective colony No. 2 in the Vladimir Oblast, roughly 60 miles east of Moscow.

It was at Colony No. 2, where the former presidential candidate was allegedly tortured through solitary confinement and sleep deprivation.

‘…on March 31, Navalny initiated a hunger strike to protest authorities’ failure to provide him a requested medical examination and treatment for pain and loss of mobility in his legs after he was transferred on March 15 to the Penal Colony No. 2 (IK-2) in the Vladimir region, read the 2021 State Department report. ‘Prison authorities also subjected Navalny for months to hourly wake-ups through the night by prison authorities on the pretense that he was a ‘flight risk.’ Navalny likened this treatment to torture through sleep deprivation.’

Around 520,000 inmates are imprisoned in roughly 680 Russian penal colonies, according to reporting by The New York Times and Associated Press. Statistics for women’s colonies have not been published by the government, but there are believed to be 60 female penal colonies, the Russia Behind Bars Foundation told Axios. Within those camps, there are believed to be 39,000 female prisoners.

Inmates face poor sanitation, food shortages, limited healthcare access, and even physical and sexual violence, according to the State Department.

Russian opposition politician, anti-corruption campaigner and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during his legal appeal against his nine-year prison sentence, in Moscow's City Court, in May

Russian opposition politician, anti-corruption campaigner and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during his legal appeal against his nine-year prison sentence, in Moscow’s City Court, in May

In October, one human rights group, Gulagu.net, claimed to have obtained more than 1,000 videos showing prison officials sexually abusing inmates. Other inmates were forced to abuse prisoners, according to the group.

Even the process of being transferred to a penal colony has been described as ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’ According to Amnesty International, trips ‘can take from two weeks to a month or more.’

Griner’s case is particularly troubling because she’s married to a woman, Cherelle, and the Russian government’s hostility towards gays and lesbians remains a constant threat.

‘Russian prisons are grim, even relative to prisons in other countries,’ Muriel Atkin, a Russian history professor at George Washington University, told NBC News. ‘And the Putin regime has ramped up hostility towards gays and lesbians as part of its broader policy of hard-line nationalism.’

A still image from CCTV footage published by Life.Ru shows what is said to be jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny speaking with a prison guard at the IK-2 corrective penal colony in the town of Pokrov, Russia, in this image from video released in 2021

A still image from CCTV footage published by Life.Ru shows what is said to be jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny speaking with a prison guard at the IK-2 corrective penal colony in the town of Pokrov, Russia, in this image from video released in 2021

Maria Alyokhina (L), member of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, speaks to the media after her release from a penal colony in Nizhny Novgorod December 23, 2013. Alyokhina walked free from jail on Monday under an amnesty allowing her early release from a two-year sentence for a protest in a church against President Vladimir Putin

Maria Alyokhina (L), member of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, speaks to the media after her release from a penal colony in Nizhny Novgorod December 23, 2013. Alyokhina walked free from jail on Monday under an amnesty allowing her early release from a two-year sentence for a protest in a church against President Vladimir Putin

Naturally, concern for Griner’s safety has only increased since news of her transfer surfaced since she was moved from Moscow.

‘We’re in constant contact with Russian authorities to get Brittney and others out,’ President Joe Biden said last month. ‘So far we’ve not been meeting with much positive response but we’re not stopping.’

‘Brittney Griner’s nine-plus year sentence is regarded as harsh and extreme by Russian legal standards,’ Colas said in a statement Tuesday on Twitter. ‘Today’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, appeal outcome further validates the fact that she is being held hostage and is being used as a political pawn. Brittney Griner is being held by Russia simply because she is an American.’

Griner’s February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner was returning to Russia, where she played during the US league’s offseason.

Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage, but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence, at the Moscow regional court on Tuesday

Griner is pictured with her wife, Cherelle

Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August for drug smuggling, is seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison during a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence, at the Moscow regional court on Tuesday. Right, Griner is pictured with her wife, Cherelle

WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia after officials found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, according to a report in the New York Times on Saturday March 5

WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia after officials found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, according to a report in the New York Times on Saturday March 5

Police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in Griner's luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport

Police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in Griner’s luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport

A picture taken in March of 2007 shows prisoners dining at a facility in Mordovia

A picture taken in March of 2007 shows prisoners dining at a facility in Mordovia

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.

Before her conviction, the US State Department declared Griner to be ‘wrongfully detained’ — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Reflecting the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a ‘substantial proposal’ to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage.

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US and once earned the nickname the ‘merchant of death.’

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer.

Picture taken in March of 2007 shows prisoners having a gym break in Mordovia penal Colony

Picture taken in March of 2007 shows prisoners having a gym break in Mordovia penal Colony

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the US proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements.

In September, US President Joe Biden met with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister.

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his ‘continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.’

The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the US releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Moscow also has protested the arrest of another Russian currently in US custody, Alexander Vinnik, who was accused of laundering billions of dollars via an illicit cryptocurrency exchange. Vinnik had been in custody in Greece after being arrested there in 2017 at US request before being extradited to the US in August. It wasn’t clear if Russia might demand Vinnik’s release as part of a potential swap.

Cherelle appeared to acknowledge her wife’s culpability when speaking with CBS last month, but slammed the punishment Brittney has received.

‘I do believe a crime should warrant a punishment,’ Cherelle remarked. ‘But it must be balanced… B.G. has truly suffered beyond her crime already.’

Adding to Cherelle’s grief was the prospect of labor camp: ‘My brain can’t even fathom it.’

A man looks at his cell phone while walking past the barbed wire fence of the IK-3 penal colony where jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was reportedly transferred in the city of Vladimir on April 19, 2021

A man looks at his cell phone while walking past the barbed wire fence of the IK-3 penal colony where jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was reportedly transferred in the city of Vladimir on April 19, 2021

The situation is obviously complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has left Brittney feeling like a political pawn.

‘She’s, like, saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more,” Cherelle said. ‘You know, ‘I feel like my life just doesn’t matter. Like, I’m just being tossed around, like, for people’s enjoyment and gain.’

‘Those are all valid emotions to feel and I don’t have answers for, except the fact that your life matters to me, and I wanna get you back home,’ Cherelle said. ‘I’m gonna continue to pray every day that, you know, the people that are the decision-makers in this situation will have mercy and will sit down, and they will, too, see that your life matters, and do whatever they can to agree — on terms.’

Griner has only spoken with her wife twice since being last February, and the latter of the two calls left her partner disturbed and crying for days.

That exchange was in stark contrast to a previous call, where Cherelle says Brittney was more upbeat.

‘I think I cried for about two, three days straight,’ Cherelle told co-host Gayle King. ‘It was the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced.

‘I think I cried for about two, three days straight. It was the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced.

‘It’s just the most still, I think, moment I’ve just ever shared with my wife,’ she continued. ‘I didn’t have words.’

A view of Correctional Colony-17 in the northern city Murmansk. Around 520,000 inmates are imprisoned in roughly 680 Russian penal colonies, according to reporting by The New York Times and Associated Press. Statistics for women's colonies have not been published by the government, but there are believed t be 60 female penal colonies, the Russia Behind Bars Foundation told Axios. Within those camps, there are believed to be 39,000 female prisoners

A view of Correctional Colony-17 in the northern city Murmansk. Around 520,000 inmates are imprisoned in roughly 680 Russian penal colonies, according to reporting by The New York Times and Associated Press. Statistics for women’s colonies have not been published by the government, but there are believed t be 60 female penal colonies, the Russia Behind Bars Foundation told Axios. Within those camps, there are believed to be 39,000 female prisoners

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