What is a penal colony? Where in Russia is Brittney Griner, what are Russian prisons like - and conditions

Conditions in Russia’s penal colonies have come under fire from human rights activists in the past

<p>Brittney Griner seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison before a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence on 25 October (Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)</p>

Brittney Griner seen on a screen via a video link from a remand prison before a court hearing to consider an appeal against her sentence on 25 October (Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Brittney Griner, the imprisoned American basketball player, has been transferred to a Russian penal colony, according to her legal team, after a Russian court denied her appeal against her nine-year sentence for drug possession last month.

A statement from her legal team said: “Brittney was transferred from the detention centre in Iksha on November 4. She is now on her way to a penal colony. We do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination.”

She confirmed having the canisters in her luggage but testified that she had mistakenly packed them in haste and had no illegal intent.

Here is everything you need to know.

What is a penal colony?

A penal colony, also known as an exile colony, is a settlement used to exile prisoners and segregate them from a country’s general population by transporting them to a remote location, usually an island or distant colonial territory.

Although the word can apply to more ‘standard’ correctional facilities in distant regions, it is more usually used to allude to prison communities supervised by wardens or governors with total control.

Historically, penal colonies were frequently used for penal labour in economically underdeveloped areas of a state’s (typically colonial) territories.

What conditions is Griner facing?

Griner’s legal team have said “we do not have any information on her exact current location or her final destination,” making it difficult to determine just what sort of conditions she may be facing.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said: “Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long.

“As the Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.

The strict-regime penal colony IK-6, where jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was transferred to in March 2022 (Photo: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

Corrective labour colonies are the most common type of prison in the modern day Russian Federation however, with hundreds of facilities across the many administrative divisions of Russia; in 2012, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service reported that over half a million prisoners were serving sentences at such colonies.

There are four levels of these colonies: very strict/special, strict, general, and open. Prisoners are required to participate in punitive labour, which takes the form of work brigades in colony production zones, where they receive a wage, the majority of which is paid back to the colony for their care.

Detachments - the detaining units of prisons - are largely self-organised, with prison administrations appointing a "head monitor" to keep order and communicate with the prison administration.

The head monitor is supported by various prisoners’ committees responsible for health and safety, cleanliness, energy conservation, and psychological counselling. However, former inmates and human rights activists have criticised prison conditions.

One of the most high-profile cases of somebody speaking out against the colonies came in 2013, when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the two imprisoned members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, was sharply critical of circumstances in Russia’s correctional colonies.

“Everyday life in the colony is set up in such a way that prisoners who head a brigade and take orders from prison managers break a person’s will, bully them, and turn them into silent slaves,” she said.