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Russian prison activist paints picture of life facing Griner


U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, looks on inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia August 4, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/File Photo

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been taken to the Russian region of Mordovia, notorious since Soviet times for its penal colonies, to serve a 9-year sentence on drugs charges.

Here are extracts from a Reuters interview with Olga Romanova, a representative of the prison rights group Russia Behind Bars, on the conditions Griner can expect in the IK-2 colony in the town of Yavas. Russia’s prison service has not responded to questions from Reuters about living and working conditions in such institutions.

In the living quarters there are barracks, each with its own yard. The women live in barracks, around 80-100 people, up to 120 – Mordovia has big prisons. There’s a simple shower room, a bathroom with several toilets, a sink, a storage room to keep things and a small room with a kettle where a few people can drink tea together. From 6 a.m. till 9 p.m., you are prohibited from lying or sitting on your bed.

The yard is fenced off with barbed wire. It is an area where women who live in a barrack, which is usually one squad that has a number assigned, can step outside to get some air and smoke, look at the sunset, so to speak. This is where in the morning they have the daily inspection, rollcall and physical exercise, whatever the weather. Exercise is mandatory.

The women eat in a communal dining room. They go there in rows within their squad. They always wear uniform. The uniform is green. They sew it there for themselves. The uniform is low-quality, light fabric like they use for rainwear, and compulsory footwear. The footwear is those artificial black boots, very uncomfortable. You can’t wear any other footwear. I think that will be a problem for Brittney: she’s a tall woman with a non-standard figure and I think non-standard shoe size. It will be problematic to dress her and find shoes for her. You’re not allowed not to wear a uniform.

Mordovia’s women’s prisons, like penal colony IK-14 where (Pussy Riot activist Nadezhda) Tolokonnikova was serving, as well as IK-2, where Brittney has been sent, are very well known among human rights defenders, I would say, because of their horrible work conditions.

They sew clothes there – manufacturing clothes is the main thing. They sew uniforms for police; they sew children’s clothes there.

They work in a number of shifts. One salary – about 5,000 roubles ($83) a month – is divided between a number of women. Sometimes 10 women. So they each get about 500 roubles a month.

The women there get punished. They punish the unit that’s at fault, when they haven’t worked hard enough, for example; when they don’t take part properly in (prison) activities; when there’s some kind of incident where they don’t do some exercise the right way. Someone refuses to go to work. That kind of thing. And when they punish the unit, they don’t get any hot water. And not for an hour or two, but for a few days.

There’s a particular time when you can ask to go to the toilet. They accompany you to the toilet. You can’t just get up and drink some water, drink some tea, have a smoke, chat with someone, take a breather, or go to the toilet. Going to the toilet is a problem.

The budget for prisoners’ food is about 70 roubles ($1.16) per day. Breakfast is definitely going to be porridge – not with milk, and it’s porridge made from barley, that’s the most “popular”.

Lunch is some nondescript soup – hard to find any chunks of meat or fish in it. It’s a vegetable soup – cabbage, potato, carrot. Or it’ll be little patties of meat – but there’s more bread in there than any memories of meat.

And for dinner, it’s the same barley porridge or the same potato (soup). That’s it. There’s an acute lack of eggs – eggs are considered a luxury; eggs are for pregnant women, or prescribed by the doctor, and so on. And there’s an acute lack of dairy products.

The prison kiosk has condensed milk, tea, instant coffee, three or four types of candies, cigarettes, possibly some cheese, if you’re lucky, possibly some kind of dried sausage, mayonnaise, ketchup – that’s it.

The Gulag, created in 1933, and the current prison system (in Russia) are identical except for the name.