Speculation has grown in recent days that imprisoned basketball star and Houston native Brittney Griner could be free before the end of the year from a Russian penal colony that has been described as a hellhole.
It’s believed the United States has made a prisoner swap offer that would bring the three-time Olympic Gold Medalist and WNBA star home after nine months in captivity in Moscow on charges stemming from being caught with less than one gram of cannabis oil in luggage at an airport as she was attempting to return home on Feb. 17.
But it’s unclear whether Russia is listening or operating in good faith.
In the meantime, there are growing concerns about the conditions Griner is enduring after being transferred last month to IK-2 penal colony Mordovia after losing her appeal of the nine-year prison term. Those with knowledge of the Russian prison camp environment describe it as being about as close to hell as you can get.
The U.S. Embassy confirmed to CNN on Thursday night that it was informed of Griner’s move recently after there had been concerns about her whereabouts in early November.
“The U.S. Embassy in Moscow was formally notified by the Russian government of Ms. Griner’s transfer on November 23, more than two weeks after she was moved from a prison in Moscow to IK-2 in Mordovia,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
“We are in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team and aware that they were able to visit her this week,” the spokesperson said.
Prisoners condemned to those camps are said to spend 16-hour work days sewing uniforms for police officers and prison guards. Her existence is comprised of “tedious manual work, poor hygiene and lack of access to medical care.” It’s unclear whether Griner has a bed to accommodate her 6-foot-8 frame.
Griner’s existence is believed to be made worse because she is a Black American and openly lesbian.
California congressman John Garamendi, who serves on the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services said of Griner’s situation, “Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws.”
But word from Griner’s legal team is that she is doing the best she can at this point and trying to remain positive.
“Despite the fact she is alone and now nearing her ninth month in detention separated from her loved ones,” her reps said to the media in Moscow, “she is trying to stay strong.”
Griner, whose imprisonment has been described as wrongfully detained and even President Biden has said her imprisonment is a “miscarriage of justice,” is caught in a political war between the U.S. and Russia. The relationship has been colder than usual this last year after Russia invaded Ukraine and the U.S. has leveled sanctions on the country for doing so.
But there is hope that the two at-odds nations can agree on a prison swap that would free Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. But there hasn’t been a credible response from Moscow at this point.
In the meantime, her family back in the U.S. has been left to wonder about her mental state and living conditions.
“She’s very afraid about being left and forgotten in Russia or just completely used to the point of her detriment,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle said during an interview with CBS’ Gayle King in October. “Because she’s saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more. I feel like my life doesn’t matter. Like, y’all don’t see me? Y’all don’t see the need to get me back home? And just nothing?’ “