Brittney Griner says she wanted to take her life when detained in Russian jail: ‘I felt like leaving here so badly’

WNBA star said that she ultimately didn’t act on it, in part because she was afraid that Russian authorities wouldn’t release her body to her family

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 02 May 2024 12:34 BST
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Brittney Griner details poor conditions she experienced in frigid Russian prison

WNBA star Brittney Griner has revealed that she thought about killing herself multiple times after being detained in a Russian jail on drug-related charges.

Griner, 33, was taken into custody after cannabis oil vape cartridges were found inside her luggage in February 2022 at a Moscow-area airport. She was later sentenced to nine years in Russian prison before being released as part of a prisoner-exchange swap between the US and Russia.

In her first interview since her release, the basketball player opened up about her harrowing experience behind bars and revealed she considered ending her life during the first few weeks.

“I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks,” Griner told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an interview that aired on Wednesday night.

“I felt like leaving here so badly.”

Griner said that she ultimately didn’t act on it, in part because she was afraid that Russian authorities wouldn’t release her body to her family.

The WNBA star’s detention came at a time of heightened tensions between the US and Russia, coming the same month that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine.

Brittney Griner opens up in an interview with ABC
Brittney Griner opens up in an interview with ABC ( Good Morning America)

The WNBA star told Ms Roberts that she knew she was in serious trouble when the arrest unfolded, and frantically tried to send text messages to her wife Cherelle, who was asleep at the time.

“If you don’t hear from me for like one hour or more get my agent on the phone. Wake up plz,” one message read.

“Baby text me plz. I’m freaking out,” read another.

One of the last messages was the most jarring: “This is it for me.”

Robin Roberts (left) during an interview with Brittney Griner
Robin Roberts (left) during an interview with Brittney Griner (AP)

“Honestly it was probably the most alarming thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Cherelle Griner told 20/20. “It was panic in the messages and there were so many of them.”

Griner went on to say that she managed to hold it together until she saw her wife’s face.

At that point, she was allowed a video chat with her wife.

”I was holding it together until I saw her face,” Griner said. “I just broke.”

In November, she was transferred to a penal colony, and her location was initially unknown.

As the WNBA star headed to serve out her sentence, she feared for what was in store.

US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, sits inside a defendants' cage after the court's verdict during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022
US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, sits inside a defendants' cage after the court's verdict during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“I was just so scared for everything,” she told Ms Roberts through tears. “There was so much unknown.”

Conditions during her time in Russian prison were harrowing.

In pretrial detention, Griner said she was given toothpaste that expired 15 years ago and forced to live in a cell with black mould and a bloody mattress.

In the frigid penal colony where she was later moved, Griner worked around the clock helping manufacture Russian military uniforms and had to cut her dreadlocks because they would ice over.

“My dreads started to freeze,” she said. “They would just stay wet and cold and I was getting sick. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to survive.”

US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022
US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)

During the interview, Griner also reflected on the “mental lapse” of travelling with the cannabis vape pen that led to her 10-month Russian imprisonment, a punishment that ended when she was returned to the US in December 2022 in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“I could just visualise everything I worked so hard for just crumbling and going away”, the WNBA player said.

She said that the whole experience was made more difficult because of her inability to communicate with the prison officers.

American basketball star Brittney Griner gets out of a plane after landing at the JBSA-Kelly Field Annex runway on December 9, 2022 in San Antonio, after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer
American basketball star Brittney Griner gets out of a plane after landing at the JBSA-Kelly Field Annex runway on December 9, 2022 in San Antonio, after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer (AFP via Getty Images)

In July, she pleaded guilty to drug charges, testifying that the cartridges were in her luggage accidentally and that she had “no intention” of breaking Russian law, under which cannabis is illegal.

Ms Roberts asked Griner how she managed to bring the cartridges with her by mistake.

“Have you ever forgot your keys in your car?” Griner said. “Left your car running? Have you ever, you know, where’s my glasses? They’re on top of your head. Where’s my phone? Oh, it’s in my pocket. It’s just so easy to have a mental lapse.

“Granted, my mental lapse was on a more grand scale. But it doesn’t take away from how that can happen”.

She continued: “This was a mistake. It was an accident, which I understand accidents have repercussions”, Griner said. “And I’m American in Russia where relations aren’t the best”.

Ms Roberts asked Griner to explain what was going through her mind when she realised what she’d done.

“I’m thinking about my wife. I’m thinking about my dad. You know, what my mom’s going to think, what my family’s going to think, public opinion is going to think”, she said. “I can just see the headlines now”.

The Department of State classified Griner’s case as “unlawfully detained” in May 2022. It is the same designation given to former US marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who are still being held in Russia.

Since returning to the US, Griner has continued to play basketball and is expecting her first baby with wife Cherelle in July.

The basketball star will reveal more about her time in Russian jail in a memoir titled, Coming Home. The book is scheduled to be released on 7 May.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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