What is a Penal Colony? Brittney Griner Russian Prison Conditions Examined

The nine-year prison sentence given to U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner on Thursday sparked outrage among many in the U.S., including social media users, the NBA and U.S. President Joe Biden who called the verdict "unacceptable" and demanded that Russia "immediately" release her.

Griner was found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil at a Moscow airport in February, the same month Russia invaded Ukraine. Her lawyers plan to appeal the court's decision in an effort to bring her back home to the U.S., but for now she is slated to serve her sentence in a penal colony.

The penal colonies, which include barracks surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, developed from the often-deadly forced-labor camps under former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin to today's model in which prisoners do lighter labor such as sewing military uniforms instead of mining.

Russia has a history of notorious prisons when it was the Soviet Union, including forced labor camps that operated under a system called the Gulag, an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. The camps had around 18 million prisoners from 1919 until 1955, two years after Stalin died.

What is a Penal Colony?
U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Above, Griner inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Penal colonies, which make up the vast majority of Russian prisons with 684 of the 692 penitentiaries, according to The New York Times, differ from a typical U.S. prison.

Correctional officers in federal prisons in the U.S. can't harass prisoners as part of their jobs. According to the nonprofit How to Justice, harassment includes using offensive language with prisoners. Also, corrections officers are not allowed to give "unreasonable" demands to prisoners, even though they can give orders.

Russian activist Konstantin Kotov served 18 months in a penal colony in 2019 for being involved in an unauthorized protest. He told the Associated Press in 2021 that the facilities were "pretty good" and that there was "more-or-less decent food." However, he pointed out that the medical service is slow, saying that he had to wait two months to have a rash examined that turned out to be scabies.

"But that's it in terms of positive things," Kotov told AP.

Prison guards at the penal colony where Kotov was held would harass inmates over minor situations such as not greeting an officer or not wearing gloves in cold weather, he said.

"What's most important about these reprimands is that they use them to strip you of a chance to get parole," he said last year. "So you fail to greet an officer and will stay behind bars to the end of your term."

Dmitry Demushkin, a Russian nationalist leader who was detained in a penal colony, told the news outlet RT that the physical demands were brutal, according to AP.

"Much worse than beatings is the detention regime," he said. "You either stand for six to eight hours a day or you sit with your back straight, legs together, arms on your knees and nothing can be done.

"For any action, for example, if you want to scratch your nose, you have to get permission from the 'activists,'" inmates who report on their fellow prisoners' behavior to guards.

Kotov and Demushkin didn't experience beatings, despite that being a common practice in other Russian prisons, according to AP.

Update 8/4/22, 6:07 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information.