In a string of increasingly heartbreaking news about the wellbeing of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who is currently detained in Russia, the basketball player’s lawyer is now telling press that Griner is not in “good condition” and is growing increasingly anxious that U.S. officials may never be able to bring her home.
Alexander Boikov, Griner’s lawyer, told the New York Times this week that Griner is only allowed outside once a day for a one-hour walk in a small courtyard at a penal colony outside Moscow. The rest of her time is spent in a small cell with two cellmates, where the 6-foot-9 athlete sits and sleeps—all of which Boikov says is contributing to her declining mental health.
“She is not yet absolutely convinced that America will be able to take her home,” Boikov said, after he spoke to Griner on Tuesday. “She is very worried about what the price of that will be, and she is afraid that she will have to serve the whole sentence here in Russia.”
In February, nearly nine months ago, Griner was taken into Russian custody after airport officials discovered trace amounts of cannabis in her luggage, which is illegal in Russia. The move was widely criticized as Russia using a queer Black American athlete as a political pawn for leverage in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. In August, she was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on grossly exaggerated “drug smuggling” charges. Griner is set to appeal her prison sentence on October 25 and will be held in a Russian prison until then.
The Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap, offering to send back a convicted Russian arms dealer for both Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan. On Wednesday, President Biden said that there had been no movement with the Russian president Vladimir Putin on the terms of the swap. But Biden also told CNN that he would consider sitting down with Putin at an upcoming Group of 20 meeting in Bali next month to discuss her release.
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But Boikov says Griner “has not been in as good condition as I could sometimes find her in,” and her condition is worsening as uncertainties surrounding her fate loom large. She is particularly nervous about the type of prison she ends up in, says Boikov, as she fears she may wind up in a facility with “miserable or inhumane conditions.” She has also struggled with how sparingly she’s been able to speak to her relatives and her wife, Cherelle Griner.
“She suffers a lot without her family because she hasn’t seen them for so long and it’s very difficult to talk to them in any way,” Boikov said, adding that scheduling calls with Cherelle was a logistical nightmare, and Griner had not yet spoken to her parents or siblings since she was first detained nine months ago.
Russian journalist Ekaterina Kalugina told the Times that she visited Griner in her cell during the spring as part of a civic engagement team that monitors the conditions in Russian prisons for human rights violations. Griner’s cellmates at the time, she says, were also women who spoke English detained on drug-related charges. Griner had been reading a translation of Dostoyevsky’s political tragedy novel Demons, as well as a biography of the Rolling Stones. Sometimes, Kalugina said, she played a game similar to Battleship with her cellmates.
But the pretrial detention center Griner was held at during the spring and summer only allowed women to shower twice a week. Kalugina added that when she met Griner, she was suffering from pain, including headaches. “It’s an old building, and made of stone,” Boikov said. “When it is hot outside, it’s too hot, and when it’s cold outside, it is too cold.”
If Griner is not released soon, she could be sent back to a different section of the penal colony, where she is currently detained, or to a prison camp for women where would spend hours a day sewing or other forms of physical labor. Whelan, who has served two out of his 16-year sentence in Russian prison, spent most of his time sewing buttons at a prison camp.