On Her Birthday, We Learned About Brittney Griner’s Suffering

On Her Birthday, We Learned About Brittney Griner’s Suffering

On Her Birthday, We Learned About Brittney Griner’s Suffering

In an interview with her attorneys, the WNBA superstar revealed more details about her conditions in a Russian prison cell.


When Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry received his NBA championship ring on Wednesday night, the crowd roared. But the team captain, instead of basking in the moment, quieted the arena, and said, “We want to continue to use our platform and the opportunity to shout out a very special member of the basketball community. Brittney Griner’s birthday is today; she’s 32 years old. We want to continue to let her name be known and we pray.” Curry then accurately called Griner “wrongfully incarcerated” in Russia and, in a pointed statement at the Biden administration, said, “We hope that she comes home soon, that everybody’s doing their part to get her home.”

This brought Griner much needed attention. She believes she is being forgotten, and that makes Curry’s reminder all the more important. But she will need more than prayers. The basketball star, facing nine years in a Russian prison camp for the “crime” of possessing two vape cartridges in her luggage, is suffering. According to an article in The New York Times, this world-class athlete is only allowed outside for one hour a day. She shares a small cell with two other prisoners. Showers are twice a week. Only recently was she afforded a bed that could fit her six-foot-eight-inch frame. The building is stone, so, as her attorney, Alexandr D. Boykov, told the Times, “When it is hot outside, it’s too hot, and when it’s cold outside, it is too cold.” Arranging calls to her family has proven to be a near impossibility. She has not been able to speak to her parents or her siblings since her February arrest and only spoken to her wife, Cherelle, twice. Boykov said after visiting Griner, “She has not been in as good condition as I could sometimes find her in. She is not yet absolutely convinced that America will be able to take her home. She is very worried about what the price of that will be, and she is afraid that she will have to serve the whole sentence here in Russia.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says securing the freedom of those imprisoned abroad is his top priority, which also includes another person from the United States imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan. And yet the efforts to negotiate her release by former ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson have reportedly been discouraged by the administration. Richardson is “cautiously optimistic” that he can strike a deal to secure their freedom by the end of the year. He has had results in the past freeing US citizens from autocracies. But, as the Times reported, “U.S. officials have publicly discouraged such private negotiations, saying that they are not helpful to their efforts.” This is a standard position of the government in these matters, especially when dealing with a country that has hostilities toward the United States. Yet it’s also absolutely the wrong posture. If Richardson can make a deal, then that should be supported and celebrated. If he is full of hot air—a distinct possibility—then let that be exposed by his failure to secure her freedom.

Joe Biden says he will speak to Vladimir Putin at the forthcoming G20 conference in Bali only if freeing Griner is the first order of business. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that they have not received a serious “counteroffer” to their efforts at a prisoner swap, which certainly implies that Biden’s people offered Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose release was previously thought to be Putin’s goal in targeting Griner. If Putin is in fact refusing Bout, and refusing to even negotiate with the Biden administration, that suggests a far longer road for Griner. This wouldn’t be just “hostage diplomacy.” This would be the gleeful taking of a hostage. Even with Russia’s strict drug laws, nine years for two cartridges is unheard of. This has nothing to do with weed. It is the price for the US response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a price for the global absence of peace. (And yes, the US would have a firmer leg to stand upon if it today offered blanket amnesty to every single person being warehoused in our prisons for marijuana possession.)

One fascinating detail that emerged from the interviews with her attorneys is that Griner is passing the time by reading Dostoyevsky’s depressing novel Demons, where God’s existence is affirmed by the presence of suffering. Griner’s ordeal brings to mind, however, a quote from perhaps his most famous novel, Crime and Punishment, in which he writes, “Break what must be broken, once for all, that’s all, and take the suffering on oneself.” The very least we should do is take the words of Steph Curry to heart, and continue to hold a candle for Griner, continue to demand that the Biden administration do all it can—including the use of private negotiators—and take Griner’s suffering as our own.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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