Just as in late February, when she seemed to disappear off the map following a Moscow airport arrest for possession of a vape cartridge, we don’t know exactly where Brittney Griner is, only that she isn’t home. As she begins a shocking—even by Russian standards—nine-year prison sentence, her state of health and whereabouts are a mystery. We do know that she is at the IK-2 penal colony in Mordovia, but that’s not particularly helpful given that Mordovia is known as Russia’s “land of prisons.” In the snowy, swampy area about 250 miles southeast of Moscow, there are roughly two dozen massive jails. Her “penal colony” could be any one of these.
The Mordovia prisons are infamous, with locals expressing shock that someone of Griner’s international fame would be held there. The penal colony is notoriously racist and homophobic, which makes Griner’s fate anyone’s guess.
More details about life in these prisons have emerged, and they are chilling. Nadya Tolokonnikova of the band/social action collective Pussy Riot spent two years in Mordovia, and she told MSNBC that it is a labor camp where prisoners are expected to work 16 hours a day. “Beatings and torture” are common, she said. Medical care hardly exists. And, in an awful twist, their jobs are to sew police army and guard uniforms, literally darning the clothes of their jailers. International observers have no idea about Griner’s particular conditions, or even if her bed can fit her six-foot-eight-inch frame.
This is, of course, terrifying, with members of the WNBA family attempting to signal-boost the conditions in which Griner is living. But Griner believes, according to her wife, Cherelle, that she is being forgotten and that once forgotten she will not be a cause of concern for this country or the Biden administration. A popular uproar for Griner’s return outside of the WNBA and NBA has also not really risen, and the reasons are glaring. As longtime best-selling sports scribe John Feinstein tweeted, “I wish I could say I’m surprised by the lack of sympathy—and outright anger—directed at Brittney Griner. She committed a minor crime and is in a Russian penal colony. But because she’s not White or male or straight, lots of people don’t care or are happy. Sad.”
It is beyond sad that Griner has become another totem of the culture war as opposed to a wrongfully and unjustly imprisoned US citizen whose release should be broadly demanded. Instead, both the anti-drug law-and-order crowd and the right-wing “cult of Putin and Russian authoritarianism” crowd want to see her punished for no other discernible reason than her identity and politics. They point out that Griner protested during the national anthem and wore shirts in solidarity with Breonna Taylor, who was murdered by police in Louisville, Ky. Because Griner exercised this speech, she is somehow not really American and somehow worthy of this kind of punishment. Trump insulted Griner, which opens the door for his minions to do the same. As has been said by many, if this was Tom Brady or Derek Jeter in a prison camp for nine years, the outrage would become an unholy din. Or as Michael Eric Dyson pointed out, “This Black woman, had she been anybody else—even a straight Black woman would’ve received more support than a queer Black woman with a Black wife.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear that the official position of the Biden administration is that “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney…. Securing her release is our priority.” According to Blinken, Russia has not been negotiating in good faith and seems to take pleasure in having Griner to dangle over the administration’s head. This is precisely why we need to keep up the pressure to free Griner, Paul Whelan, and all prisoners locked away overseas. It’s almost all we can do—but not entirely. We also should connect Griner’s plight with this country’s barbaric laws on cannabis possession, which, despite the spread of legalized marijuana in state after state, still keep thousands behind bars. These are people who like Griner deserve to have their sentences vacated immediately. If Biden announced such a plan, it would give him an even stronger moral leg to stand on in demanding Griner’s release. He could do it not only to protest Russia’s corrupt system of criminal justice but also as an outgrowth of reforming our own corrupt system of criminal justice. Such an effort would keep Griner’s name in the news and remind her that she is not forgotten.