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Brittney Griner faces ‘horrific’ conditions in ‘harshest’ Russian penal colony

Brittney Griner stands in a defendants’ cage in Russian court hearing during her trial. (Evgenia Novozhenina/AFP via Getty Images)

WNBA star Brittney Griner faces “slave-like” conditions in the Russian penal colony where she was moved earlier this month, Russian activist and former prisoner Nadya Tolokonnikova said in interview with MSNBC.

Tolokonnikova, a founding member of the Russian feminist protest art collective Pussy Riot, served two years in a penal colony less than four miles from the one where Griner is imprisoned in the Mordovia region of Russia.

Griner has been detained in Russia since February on drug possession charges. She was convicted in August in a trial U.S. officials and international legal experts have called a sham, and the U.S. government considers her wrongfully detained.

The 32-year-old Phoenix Mercury center was sentenced to nine years in one of Russia’s penal colonies, which are notorious for their harsh conditions and abusive treatment of prisoners. In early November, she was transferred to the IK-2 colony in the town of Yavas.

“I’m terrified that Brittney Griner was moved to IK-2,” Tolokonnikova said. “It’s one of the harshest colonies — it is literally the harshest colony in the whole Russian prison system.”

From her own experience and her conversations with others who have been imprisoned in IK-2 and other colonies, Tolokonnikova described to MSNBC what Griner likely will encounter during her imprisonment.

“Prisoners in IK2 work in slave-like conditions,” she said. “They’re forced to work up to 17 hours a day, with no days off… And if you do not perform the quota, then you’re going to be punished. And that includes torture.”

If she could give Griner advice, Tolokonnikova said, she would tell her to avoid the “horrific” conditions in the sweatshops where prisoners work and instead to choose solitary confinement.

“Being in solitary confinement is better than working on a daily basis in aggressive, slave-like labor conditions,” she said.

While a Russian official indicated Friday that the country would be open to a prisoner swap to free detained WNBA star Brittney Griner, the U.S. State Department said Russia still refuses to “seriously negotiate,” ESPN’s T.J. Quinn reported Friday.

The Biden administration is seeking a deal to free Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan, from the country.

“We have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” the State Department said. “The U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian government.

“The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter, runs counter to its public statements.”