MOSCOW, Russia — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more willing to negotiate the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner now that the U.S. midterm elections are over.
“My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange,” Biden told reporters at a news conference.
He spoke hours after Griner's lawyers revealed that she had been sent to a penal colony to serve her sentence for drug possession.
U.S. officials have for months tried to negotiate the release Griner and another American jailed in Russia, Paul Whelan. But there have been no overt signs of progress.
A diplomatic resolution has taken on new urgency after a Russian court rejected an appeal of her nine-year sentence last month. The eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist was convicted Aug. 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, and the politically charged case could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “As we have said before, the U.S. Government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens.”
Griner's legal team said she left a detention center outside Moscow on Nov. 4 for a penal colony — as prisons in Russia are commonly known. The move was expected since she lost her appeal.
Such transfers can take days or even weeks, during which time lawyers and loved ones usually don't have contact with the prisoner. Even after she arrives, access to Griner may be difficult since many penal colonies are in remote parts of Russia.
Her lawyers said Wednesday that they did not know exactly where she was or where she would end up — but that they expected to be notified when she reached her final destination.
In a statement stressing the work being done to secure Griner's release, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that Russian authorities give the embassy regular access to Griner, as they are required to do. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow visited Griner last week.
A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, said the Russians had not notified American diplomats of Griner’s transfer ahead of time and had not yet responded to queries from the American embassy about either her current whereabouts or ultimate destination.
In many penal colonies, prisoners work for minimal pay, and dissidents and other countries have denounced the conditions of those held. Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment, including officials’ refusal to give him the right medicines and to allow his doctor to visit him behind bars.
He also protested the hourly checks a guard makes on him at night, saying they amount to sleep deprivation torture.
Griner, 32, who was detained while returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA’s offseason, has admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage. But she testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan — an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage — for Viktor Bout. Bout is a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.”
What is a penal colony?
Russia has more than 600 corrective colonies spread throughout the country, according to World Prison Brief, a database offering information on prisons around the world.
Penal colonies in Russia are forced labor camps with dorm-style barracks, often associated with brutality and harsh conditions, the New York Times reports. Russia's history with labor camps dates back to the Stalin era, when the infamous gulags were typical forms of punishment.
A 2021 human rights report by the U.S. Department of State revealed the Russian facilities' issues range from food shortages to overcrowding and lack of hygiene. Abuses and torture were also flagged in the report.
"Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings, including of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons in Chechnya by local government authorities," the report revealed.
Most of the penal colonies are isolated from the cities, many of them sprinkled around Siberia like the gulags.
Some inmates work 16-hour days and others are forced to watch propaganda on repeat, the New York Times reported. In 2021, high-profile prisoner and Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny said in an interview that inmates had five daily sessions of screen time where they watched propaganda films and Russian television.
“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere,” he said to the Times in 2021. “There is constant control and a culture of snitching."