The US basketball star Brittney Griner will endure harsh conditions inside the remote Mordovian penal colony to which she has been sent this week to serve her nine-year prison sentence, human rights experts and former prisoners of the colony have said.
“Prisons in Mordovia are notoriously terrible, even by Russian standards. The prisons there are known for the harsh regimes and human rights violations,” said Olga Zeveleva, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki who specialises in Russian prison conditions as part of the Gulag Echoes project. “It is a place any prisoner wants to avoid,” Zeveleva said.
One popular saying among Russian female prisoners, underlining the grim reality that Griner is about to face, goes: “If you haven’t done time in Mordovia, you haven’t done time at all.”
Griner, 32, was handed a nine-year sentence in August for possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil, after she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. It came amid fierce tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Deep in the taiga, IK-2 is part of a sprawling network of penal colonies in the north-west of the Mordovia region, about 300 miles east of Moscow. The prisons were built in the early 1930s as part of the gulag system of the Stalin era and together make up one of the largest penal complexes in Europe
“When you arrive, it feels like you are entering a different chiefdom. Everything looks like it has been stuck in time for 50 years,” said Judith Pallot, a professor of the human geography of Russia at the University of Oxford, who visited IK-2 in 2017 as part of her research on Russian prisons.
Pallot said Griner would share a dormitory with about 100 other women in a crowded space filled with bunk beds. “Prisoners enjoy no private space at all. You aren’t allowed to hang pictures of your loved ones or keep other personal belongings. It is all very sterile and sad,” she said.
When prisoners arrive at IK-2 colony, they are first placed for two weeks in a “quarantine block” to be checked for infectious diseases. At this point, Griner will give up her civilian clothes and exchange them for the prison uniform and headscarf that has to be worn for most of the day.
“This is a time of adaption to the new prison life,” said Pallot. “You are being told what the internal rules and duties are. The authorities will also examine whether you will be someone who could be a regime violator.”
Pallot feared that Griner might struggle initially with getting a grip on all the formal and informal rules that govern a prison colony. “When I was there, everything was in Russian,” she said. “God knows how Griner will understand it all.”
During the time of quarantine, it is determined which otryad, or detachment, a prisoner will join for the duration of their sentence. The otryad is the basic building block of a Russian colony. The word refers both to the physical space and the social unit to which a prisoner belongs.
After her integration into her otryad, Griner’s day will start at about 6am with a morning call followed by group exercises. The rest of her day will probably be spent behind a sewing machine, where she will be expected to labour for between 10 and 12 hours sewing clothes, mostly uniforms for the prison service and for the Russian army fighting in Ukraine.
Human rights workers have for years documented incidents of torture and sexual abuse in Russian male prisons. While that level of violence is less common in female colonies, experts say bullying by fellow prisoners as well as violence perpetrated by prison guards is frequent.
“The Russian prison system isn’t interested in rehabilitation, it is based on retribution and punishment. It is a system underpinned by violence,” Pallot said.
Russian female colonies have long practised the doctrine of “prisoner self-organisation” to get jobs done around the detachment blocks and to organise prisoners’ daily lives, Pallot said. A woman recruited by the prison administration is designated as “head monitor” and at night prisoners are left virtually unsupervised.
“This system goes against all the rules that we have in prisons in the west. It opens the door for both mental and physical bullying,” Pallot said.
Pallot and Zeleneva said it was difficult to predict how fellow prisoners would react to Griner, a tall, black, queer woman. “She will certainly be perceived as an exotic figure,” said Zeleneva.
Human rights abuses in Mordovian prisons first received widespread international attention in 2013 after Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from the Pussy Riot collective published an open letter decrying her conditions at IK-14, a prison less than four miles from Griner’s IK-2.
Tolokonnikova, who spent two years at IK-14 and went on hunger strike over her prison conditions, described in the letter how she was forced to sew police uniforms for 17 hours a day with other exhausted inmates.
She wrote: “A threatening, anxious atmosphere pervades the work zone. Eternally sleep-deprived, overwhelmed by the endless race to fulfil inhumanly large quotas, prisoners are always on the verge of breaking down, screaming at each other, fighting over the smallest things.”
Conditions at Mordovia’s IK-2 have recently come under scrutiny after a series of complaints from prisoners and human rights organisations, which led the authorities to dispatch a group of investigators to inspect the jail.
“Normal prisons don’t apply there,” Olga Shilayeva, who spent time at IK-2 before being released five years ago, said in a video interview with a Russian outlet in 2018. In the interview, Shilayeva said she was routinely beaten up by Vyacheslav Kimyaev, a senior official at the prison who was later promoted to head of the colony.
In 2021, investigators concluded that they did not find any violations inside the prison. But in a sign that the authorities were growing unhappy with the public complaints, Kimyaev was recently replaced by a female head, Yelena Pozdnyakova.
“It is yet to be seen whether Pozdnyakova will be any different than her predecessors,” said Zeveleva.
Human rights experts said it was no coincidence that the authorities had chosen to send Griner to IK-2. Pallot said: “First of all, the local prison authorities are fiercely loyal to Moscow. The central management will know exactly what will be going on there.”
Located away from the capital, the colony will also be hard to reach for outsiders. “It will be much harder for human rights groups and journalists to get there and report on what is going on,” she said.
Griner will hope she will not have to spend much of her nine-year sentence behind bars. Since her arrest, the US administration has been pushing to involve her in a prisoner exchange with Russia, potentially swapping her for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“My hope is, now that the [US midterm] election is over, that Mr Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about prisoner exchange,” Joe Biden said at a recent press conference, stressing his desire to get Griner released.
Russia made a positive noise on Friday on a potential swap, but for now Griner will have to adapt to her new life. Human rights experts were split on whether the her high-profile status would protect her in jail.
“There is a camp that believes that her high-profile stature will act as a shield,” said Zeveleva. But there were also concerns that amid the anti-America hysteria that has gripped Russia, Griner might face even more severe treatment.
“In times of war, the rules might be different … In any case, she won’t have a pleasant time there,” Zeveleva said.
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