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American basketball star Brittney Griner was moved to a Russian penal colony, infamous for harsh conditions and forced labour.

US basketball player Brittney Griner has been moved to a penal colony in Russia to serve her nine-year sentence for drug possession after a court rejected her appeal.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist was arrested at Moscow’s airport for having banned vape cartridges containing cannabis oil on February 17, a week before Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The White House has called her conviction “another sham judicial proceeding” and put forward “a series of proposals” to Russia for Griner’s release.

Here’s a look at what happens inside these prisons:

What is a penal colony?

Penal colonies in Russia are infamous for their harsh living conditions and brutality. Prisoners are placed in barracks rather than individual cells, where they are forced to perform daily work.

Colonies also have tougher security measures and more restrictions on movement.

Prisoners in penal colonies are divided into four categories based on the severity of the crime committed. Griner was sentenced to a low-security colony.

What are the conditions?

There are about 700 penal colonies in Russia and nearly half a million prisoners, making it the most common imprisonment institution.

According to rights group Amnesty International, conditions in colonies and prisons are “among the worst in Europe”. The European Court of Human Rights looked at 64 cases against Russia for its degrading or inhumane treatment of prisoners in 2016 alone.

The facilities are located in remote locations, far from cities, making it difficult for family or human rights workers to visit. This form of isolation is believed to be part of the punishment of pseudo-exile.

Women are more likely to be sent thousands of kilometres away as there are only 46 penal colonies for females.

Where is Griner going?

Griner’s lawyers said they do not know her final destination but in line with Russian procedures, they and the United States embassy should be informed upon her arrival. It can take up to two weeks to receive the notification.

Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s health has drastically deteriorated during his time in a penal colony.

“I consider the deterioration of my health to be the direct consequence of the actions and inaction of employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service deliberately aimed at denying me proper medical care and undermining my health,” he wrote.

He highlighted “sleep deprivation torture” as he was woken up by a guard every hour during the night, and said he also did not receive medical treatment for acute back and leg pain.

History of Russian penal colonies

Penal colonies originated from the Soviet Union’s work camps known as gulags but even date back to at least the 18th century.

Prisoners were sent to remote regions of Russia to suffer harsh living, working and weather conditions, along with isolation from civilisation.

An estimated 18 million people were sentenced to gulags between 1929 and 1953, until the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. About 1.6 million died in work camps.


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