Editorial: Don’t forget about Brittney Griner
U.S women’s basketball star Brittney Griner was taken to a Russian penal colony this week to serve out the rest of a nine-year sentence on drug possession charges. We don’t know which one. Griner’s lawyers said they weren’t told of the transfer and won’t be informed of where she’ll be imprisoned until she arrives. But it’s likely it will be as horrible an experience as it sounds.
Imagine something not too far removed from the infamous gulags of Russia’s past, according to Maria Alyokhina, a member of the feminist art and performance collective Pussy Riot, who spent nearly two years in a colony. These are forced labor camps with people stuffed into barracks, rather than cells, and with few toilets and no hot water.
Other people detained in these facilities have reported that inmates are not allowed to read, write or communicate with one another and are forced to work long hours. When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny arrived at a penal colony last year, he likened it in an Instagram post to a concentration camp and said there are cameras watching the inmates.
Griner never should have been sentenced to spend nearly a decade in jail, let alone doing hard labor, for the crime of inadvertently “smuggling” a tiny amount of cannabis oil into Moscow where she was scheduled to play basketball. She was arrested a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and has been compared to a political hostage. She pleaded guilty to the charges to take responsibility for her actions and in the hopes of avoiding a long sentence. It didn’t work, and an appeal of the sentence was denied last month.
The transfer is a good reminder that Griner, whom the U.S. considers “wrongfully detained,” should be released. On Wednesday, President Biden said he has kept in contact with Griner’s wife and is hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be more receptive to a prisoner exchange now that the election is over. “I am determined to get her home and get her home safely, along with others, I might add,” Biden said. We hope so. The punishment for Griner’s small transgression is appalling and inhumane. It’s time for her to come home.
Griner’s sentence is also a reminder that the U.S. doesn’t have clean hands on this issue. Thousands of Americans have been arrested, tried and incarcerated in America for similarly minor drug possession charges, including Allen Russell, who is serving life without parole in Mississippi for possessing 1.5 ounces of marijuana.
The U.S. should not forget Griner — or the thousands of others who languish in jail for sentences that don’t fit their crimes.
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