Crowded barracks, limited access to health care, grueling labor and abusive inmates and staff — these are just some of the things that Brittney Griner, the WNBA star sentenced to nine-and-a-half years over less than a gram of cannabis oil in a vape cartridge, could expect to find in a Russian penal colony, according to Olga Romanova, a founder of prison rights advocacy group Russia Behind Bars.
The fraught relationship between Russia and the U.S. has only worsened since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and negotiations over a potential prisoner swap for Griner have dragged on for months. “In the current political situation, the fact that she is American is certainly a disadvantage,” Romanova said. “She is obviously going to come out as a different person. We can’t know what kind of person that would be.”
Romanova, 56, founded the advocacy group in 2008 after her husband was imprisoned over alleged financial crimes. (He was released after serving four years.) Romanova was an acclaimed journalist with more than two decades of experience covering everything from economic news to the bloody Beslan school siege of 2004, but she was still shocked to realize that the Russian prison system was hardly any different from the Gulags she’d read about in books written 50 years earlier.
“I quickly realized I didn’t know my country,” she told me.
Now the advocacy group provides a wide range of assistance to people incarcerated in Russia, from offering humanitarian aid during their sentences to training public defenders. Romanova moved to Germany in 2017 after Russian authorities accused her of embezzling funds and raided the non-profit’s offices. Later, a court found her innocent, but she decided to remain in Germany and manage the advocacy group from there. She said she still receives dozens of audio messages from incarcerated people every day.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years; I have a lot of stories,” Romanova said.
Russian penal colonies, successors of the infamously brutal Gulags that took an estimated 1.6 million lives under the rule of Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, are much harsher than most U.S. prisons. They are usually located far away from cities, isolating prisoners in remote locations. For some families, it’s expensive to travel across the country to visit, and even though most colonies are accessible by bus or car, some require you to walk the last mile through a restricted area.
Intensely long and hard workdays, brutal physical and sexual violence, meager rations and other human rights abuses are prevalent in the system. For women, Romanova says, it’s even worse — “Everyone is up for themselves there. Everything goes — you can betray, you can abuse. There are no rules of behavior.”
I spoke with Romanova on Zoom about what Griner’s experience in a Russian penal colony might look like. She painted a dark picture.
“I don’t think anyone would protect her,” she told me. “Americans won’t believe me, but human rights don’t exist in Russian colonies —– no right to health, dignity or life. Nothing, forget it.”
This conversation took place earlier this month, before the news about Griner being transferred to a penal colony broke. It was translated from Russian and edited for brevity and clarity.
Anastasiia Carrier: Let’s get a basic question out of the way: What is the difference between a prison and a penal colony?
Olga Romanova: I think what you want to know is the difference between the detention center and a penal colony.
To be honest, I think it would be easier for Brittney in a colony. A life in a detention center is a life in a cell with 40 to 42 people on bunk beds. Forty women in one room, can you imagine? They have limited walks and limited rights to receive care packages. It’s impossible to survive on the kind of food they feed them there.
Now, Griner is about to transfer to the colonies. We won’t be able to know anything about her at this stage. Every stage of this process is classified, and we won’t be able to track her. We also wouldn’t know how much she is traveling — it could be two days, or it could be two months.
Then she would get to the general security colony — there are only general security colonies for women, while men get both general and high-security colonies. It would be remote from big cities, not pretty and not comfortable. But at least it wouldn’t be a confined space, and she would have access to fresh air.
Colonies put limits on everything — women are wearing uniforms, they are required to work, required to always greet staff. In our work, we think women’s colonies are more dangerous than men’s.
Carrier: That’s interesting, why do you think women’s colonies are more dangerous?
Romanova: You see, in men’s colonies, even with all their cruelty from organized crime, they have unspoken rules of behavior and an unofficial group of power brokers called the blat komitet that controls the behavior. When colony authorities need to keep the peace, they go to the blat komitet and strike a deal. Women’s colonies don’t have that. Everyone is up for themselves there. Everything goes — you can betray, you can abuse. There are no rules of behavior.
In men’s colonies, men often unite in couples in a non-sexual way, so it would be easier to receive care packages and survive. In women’s colonies, there are also these couples, but they are often of a sexual nature and often associated with violence. Domination is common in women’s colonies. Dominating — meaning sexually abusive — women take up leadership roles in women’s colonies. They get supervision roles at the colony’s manufacturingenterprise, and they often collaborate with camp authorities.
Women’s colony authorities, who want to ensure submission, also get creative — tell a woman you won’t give her period pads and she might cooperate and snitch on other women. Everyone knows that anyone among them can be a mole, and everyone prefers to keep to themselves.
Carrier: What kind of stories do you hear from the women’s colonies? Is there a way to predict what Griner’s time in the colonies would look like?
Romanova: There is this one American woman we worked with, Sarah Krivanek. She is in Skopino colony in Ryazan Oblast. We have been helping her for a while now. (Krivanek was released earlier this month and is currently in a holding cell awaiting her deportation hearing on Nov. 11. She was sentenced to one year and three months in a penal colony for a domestic abuse incident in Moscow and she claims the charges were wrongful.) She has issues with receiving medical assistance because she doesn’t have a Russian government-issued medical insurance certificate. And she can’t pay for the services because she can’t receive money transfers from the U.S.
Here is a message from one of my staff members on this: “It’s hard to explain to Americans some things. For one, why do they use coal to heat the barracks when there are more modern ways to do it?” Because there is no other energy source. “Or why do they consider cigarettes to be a currency?” Cigarettes are currency, and a U.S. dollar is not. We would always send our conservatees cigarettes in care packages.
Getting out isn’t easy either. My ex-husband two husbands ago got authorization to pick up Sarah’s credit cards and her passport, which were still in police custody in Moscow. He will meet Sarah at the airport before her flight and return it to her.
Carrier: So, no one in Russia will help you reunite with your personal items when you get out of prison?
Romanova: No, even the U.S. consulate wouldn’t help you. And we tried organizing this.
Carrier: In your experience, are Americans treated differently in Russian colonies? Would Griner be treated differently because she is Black, openly gay and famous?
Romanova: Absolutely. First and foremost, she would be seen as a threat because she is gay and then because she is American. One of our former conservatees, Anastasia, was imprisoned for being gay on made-up accusations. She was released a couple of years back and emigrated. Because she is a lesbian, no one wanted to hire her in the colonies to work. She had to unload train cars with sacks of coal. One such sack was 110 pounds and she was doing it all day long. It damaged her health.
Also, the Russian government taught people long ago that Americans are the enemy of humankind. She is likely to be jumped in the bathrooms; her food might be taken away. She is likely to experience a lot of verbal abuse with the kind of slurs no one ever should hear.
If Brittney doesn’t speak Russian, I don’t even know. If someone writes a request to us asking us to help her, I will find her an English-speaking volunteer. But there is this one thing — in Russian prisons, it’s forbidden to speak any language but Russian. All the conversations are routinely surveilled, and she would be required to speak Russian. I don’t know how she would pull it off.
Carrier: I can’t even imagine what it would be like in a Russian colony without Russian language skills. What would happen if she tried to speak English to someone? Would she be punished for it?
Romanova: Yes. The punishment can be as bad as sending her to solitary confinement. Her visitation privileges would be taken away. Her privilege to receive care packages would be taken away. But she has spent a long time in the detention center already, I think she probably can understand some basic Russian and speak some.
Carrier: What kind of job is Griner likely to getif they wouldn’t make her unload coal?
Romanova: Women usually make clothing. She would likely be making clothing for the police.
Salaries are usually tiny and for one position they often illegally sign up 10 women. I’m not sure they would hire her, an American, illegally. You must have something to do from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. They would find her something to do in the end, but no one would make her work the way Russians work — all day long, seven days a week, without vacation and for just a symbolic wage. It’s slavery.
Carrier: Do imprisoned people usually somehow work for the government or are there private businesses that have contracts with the colonies?
Romanova: In the past, Gulags were labor camps and everyone there worked for the national economy — they built railroads, dams and factories. When the Soviet economy collapsed, the requirement to work while incarcerated stayed. The current work that imprisoned people perform is to benefit the pockets of the regional military-security establishment. It means that to get people in the colonies to work for you, you need to win a government contract. And to be the people who win these contracts, you need to be connected to the bosses of the colony. There are bribes for local authorities. To keep all of this in-house, the company that ends up winning the contract takes orders from the authorities. Imprisoned people end up making things like police uniforms, so almost everyone in the colonies makes clothes. There are some places in Siberia that do logging.
Carrier: If most of the colonies’ buildings are the same ones as those used during the Soviet Gulag times, I imagine conditions are rough. Do people live in individual cells or do multiple people share the same room?
Romanova: Imprisoned people live in large wooden barracks filled with bunk beds for about 120 people. The room is split into two parts, with 60 people in each. Temperature indoors rarely goes higher than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the middle, there are several toilets and showers. They have a storage room to store personal possessions and a little kitchen where they can make tea in their free time. Separately from the barracks, there is a banya with hot water showers — barrack showers don’t get hot water — but imprisoned people are not taken there daily. There is also a library and a club. Incarcerated people are required to participate in cultural activities — read literature and poetry, sing and dance to the staff’s enjoyment. In Russian. If you don’t participate, you don’t receive rewards, and they are important — they get you permission to receive extra care packages.
Carrier: What’s the food like? I’ve read in a U.S. State Department report on human rights abuses that Russian colonies have a problem with poor nutrition.
Romanova: Right now, there is less than a dollar designated daily per inmate, and officials steal from that dollar. Likely menu: For breakfast, they get a barley porridge and sweet tea. For lunch, it’s a soup with mixed fats and cabbage and rotting potatoes. Dinner is the same porridge, slices of bread and sweet tea. You get eggs once a week if you’re lucky. Twice a week they get fish and potatoes. You can forget about dairy. You can’t request alterations.
Carrier: What are the chances that the Brittney Griner who comes out of the Russian colony will be the same person she was before?
Romanova: She is obviously going to come out a different person. We can’t know what kind of person that will be.