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What is a Russian penal colony?

After losing an appeal to her nine-year sentence in Russia, Brittney Griner is expected to be transferred to a penal colony.
Credit: AP
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner looks through bars as she listens to the verdict standing in a cage in a courtroom in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.

WASHINGTON — U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner lost an appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession on Tuesday at a Russian court.

The eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Griner, 32, was not at the Moscow Regional Court hearing Tuesday but appeared via video link from a penal colony outside the capital where she is held.  

She is expected to serve her nine-year term at a Russian penal colony, though her lawyers said it could be "a few months" before she is transferred, according to the New York Times.

What is a penal colony?

Russia has more than 600 corrective colonies spread throughout the country, according to World Prison Brief, a database offering information on prisons around the world.

Penal colonies in Russia are forced labor camps with dorm-style barracks, often associated with brutality and harsh conditions, the New York Times reports. Russia's history with labor camps dates back to the Stalin era, when the infamous gulags were typical forms of punishment.

A 2021 human rights report by the U.S. Department of State revealed the Russian facilities' issues range from food shortages to overcrowding and lack of hygiene. Abuses and torture were also flagged in the report. 

"Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities," the report revealed.

Most of the penal colonies are isolated from the cities, many of them sprinkled around Siberia like the gulags.

Some inmates work 16-hour days and others are forced to watch propaganda on repeat, the New York Times reported. In 2021, high-profile prisoner and Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny said in an interview that inmates had five daily sessions of screen time where they watched propaganda films and Russian television.

“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere,” he said to the Times in 2021. “There is constant control and a culture of snitching."

The Russian court said Griner's prison time will be recalculated to reflect what she has already served in pre-trial detention. One day in pre-trial detention will be counted as 1 1/2 days in prison, so she still will have to serve about eight years in prison.

Griner's lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in an email to the Associated Press that they were “very disappointed” with the decision because they still believe “the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”

“Britthey’s biggest fear is that she is not exchanged and will have to serve the whole sentence in Russia,” they said. “She had hopes for today, as each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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