In mid-February, Brittney Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside of the Russian capital of Moscow and accused of illegally bringing hash oil into the country. One week later, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — and since then, Ms Griner has remained in Russian custody.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Ms Griner is in the Correctional Colony No. 1 outside of Moscow, a former orphanage rebuilt a decade ago to serve as a prison for women awaiting trial and women serving their sentences. The Russian government has not confirmed Ms Griner’s whereabouts.
The Times reported that the facility is artifically lit, with “gray painted halls and grim tall walls” and that Ms Griner is also not the only foreign national held at the facility known as IK-1 for drug possession in recent years.
In 2019, Israeli-American Naama Issachar was arrested at a Moscow airport attempting to board a connecting flight when Russian authorities found a third of an ounce of marijuana in her luggage.
Ms Issachar was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years for drug possession and held at Correctional Colony No. 1 — a preview of what Ms Griner may be facing should diplomatic efforts to free her fail.
Ms Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges on Thursday, a decision likely influenced by reports that 99 percent of Russian criminal cases result in convictions.
Ms Issachar was ultimately pardoned by Russian president Vladimir Putin after ten months and allowed to leave Russia after intense negociations with the state of Israel.
Ms Griner’s situation is complicated by geopolitics: the US and much of Europe have levied sanctions agianst Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, and the US State Department believes that Ms Griner is being held as a political pawn as the invasion drags into its fourth month.
According to Yekaterina Kalugina, a journalist and member of a public prison monitoring group who visited Ms Griner spoke to the Times, inmates at IK-1 spend much of their day in isolation. After breakfast in her cell and a brief walk in the prison yard, Ms Griner spends hours reading — Dostoyevsky in translation was a recent choice — or watching Russian television. Notably, the prison has a rusty monument to Vladimir Lenin in its courtyard.
In recent weeks, Ms Griner and her wife Cherelle Watson have both begged President Joe Biden and his administration to increase the urgency with which they negotiate for Ms Griner’s release.
Ms Watson spoke by telephone with Mr Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, shortly after a letter handwritten by Ms Griner was delivered to the White House.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Ms Griner wrote. “On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
The White House has said that it is working dilligently to bring Ms Griner and other Americans wrongfully detained abroad home. But plenty in the sports world feel that Ms Griner is not getting the treatment she should.
“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Ms Griner’s WNBA coach Vanessa Nygaard of the Phoenix Mercury said this week. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
Some fear that Ms Griner’s identities also might make her a target in a country that has consistently targeted LGBTQ+ people and Black people. Ms Griner, who came out nearly a decade ago, has won an NCAA championship, a WNBA championship, and two Olympic gold medals in her celebrated basketball career.
Ms Griner’s cell in IK-1 does reportedly have a private washroom and a refrigerator for groceries. Though she is only allowed to shower two times per week.