What is the Russian penal colony where Brittney Griner was sent?

US basketball star was moved to a Russian penal colony, which are infamous for harsh conditions and forced labour.

A photograph taken on June 23, 2022 shows a strict-regime penal colony IK-6 where jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was transferred to in March 2022, near the village of Melekhovo outside the town of Vladimir, some 250 kilometres outside Moscow. - (Photo by Natalia KOLESNIKOVA / AFP)
The penal colony IK-6 where jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny was transferred to in March [File: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP]

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 launched its 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 has Griner been sent?

Griner’s lawyers said on November 17 that she had been moved to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas, approximately 500km (300 miles) southeast of Moscow in Russia’s Mordovia region.

The WNBA star was relocated from a detention centre near the Russian capital on November 4, and while her lawyers said at that time that she had been moved to a penal colony, her exact whereabouts had been unknown to the public.

“Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment,” her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boikov, said in a statement.

Mordovia also is the region where another US citizen, Paul Whelan, is serving a 16-year sentence in a different penal settlement on espionage charges.

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.

How long have Russian penal colonies existed?

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.

Source: Al Jazeera