Griner is being sent to a Russian penal colony. What is that?


Some prisoners are tortured, or beaten by fellow inmates. Some have to work 16-hour days. A few are forced to watch Russian propaganda on repeat.

This is the world of the Russian penal colony, into which Brittney Griner is about to be inducted for a nine-year term.

Penal colonies are the descendants of gulags, the notorious Stalin-era labor camps where millions of Russians lost their lives. The treatment of prisoners has improved markedly since then, according to rights groups.

But the penal colonies, many of them scattered across Siberia as gulags were and laid out in barracks, are still characterized by brutality, overcrowding, and harsh conditions, and they are often governed by a rigid prison culture.

In an interview from a penal colony last year, Russia’s most famous prisoner, the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, described a schedule of calisthenics, sweeping the yard, and games of chess or backgammon, as well as five daily sessions of screen time where inmates are forced to watch state television and propaganda films.

“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere,” he said. “There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

In June, Mr. Navalny was transferred to a maximum-security prison, where he said he spends seven-hour shifts at a sewing machine.

In 2012, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot said that there was no hot water, warm clothes or medicine in the penal colony where she and a bandmate were imprisoned, and that people who got sick could die as a result.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said in 2010 that “The Gulag Archipelago,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet penal system, should be essential reading for Russian students.

During her detention so far, Ms. Griner’s reading material has reportedly been books by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer whose work was marked by his harrowing experiences in the country’s penal system, after he was sentenced to four years’ hard labor in Siberia. Dostoyevsky once wrote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”



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