Russian lawyers and the agent for Brittney Griner said the WNBA basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist is being transferred to a penal labor colony at an undisclosed location in Russia. The transfer process, known as staging, began last Friday and can take weeks to complete. Notification is usually provided by regular mail. Griner was convicted earlier this year after she pleaded guilty to bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country.
While it was known Griner would eventually be transferred to a long-term prison to serve out her sentence, the transfer was not expected to happen so soon, and her family, legal team, and President Joe Biden expressed concern for Griner’s well-being.
“Our primary concern continues to be BG’s health and well-being,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement released Wednesday.
“Brittney was transferred from the detention center in Iksha on the 4th November. She is now on her way to a penal colony;” counsels Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a statement. “We do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination.”
“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “As the Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.”
\u201c.@USEmbRU officials visited Brittney Griner today. They saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances. We continue to press for the immediate release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and fair treatment for every detained American.\u201d
Griner, a lesbian who played center for the Phoenix Mercury and won two gold medals playing for the U.S. National Team, was detained by the Federal Customs Service in February after vape cartridges with illegal hashish oil were found in her luggage.
Labor penal colonies, or gulags, have a long history in Russia and the communist former Soviet Union. Started by Vladimir Lenin shortly after the October Revolution, they have been notoriously used to house not just ordinary criminals, but also political prisoners convicted at show trials. Author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of the Soviet-era prison camps in his book, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. While the Soviet system was officially abolished by former Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1960, forced labor penal colonies still exist to this day.
Current Russian prison camps are known for their harsh living and environmental conditions, poor food and unsafe water, lack of adequate heat in winter, rampant disease, and prisoner abuse. Prisoners live in open barracks and are forced to work or face reprisals and punishment. Penal colonies are usually located near highly industrial areas or areas with high natural resources so that prisoners can be used as cheap labor. According to the Centre for Eastern Studies, there are an estimated “869 such colonies of various regimes scattered across Russia” at present. Their isolated locations make them difficult to monitor for international observers.
Colas thanked the public for their letters and concerns, and asked for their continued support.
“As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her,” Colas said in a statement. “We are thankful for everyone’s support, and hope that as we near nine months of detention, that BG and all wrongfully detained Americans will be shown mercy and returned home to their families for the holidays.”