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Britney Griner: What is a Russian penal colony and the peculiarities of the Russian prison system

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years of prison time to be served at a Russian penal colony. And even though the sentence may sound hard, the reality is much worse.

A penal colony is a facility where inmates are housed. But they go beyond a regular jail or prison. In the past, prison colonies were built on small, largely uninhabited islands. Once efforts were made to promote humane sentencing with an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, many nations that had previously used penal colonies as places of punishment began to abandon the facilities.

Alcatraz, Robben Island in South Africa, and Green Island in Taiwan are a few examples of former penal colonies that are now gothic tourist attractions.

Now Griner will have to spend nine years reclused in one of these awful places.

What is a Russian Penal Colony?

According to The Associated Press, there were nearly 520,000 prisoners in the Russian prison system as of last year. Numerous prisons are collective colonies that were modeled after Soviet gulags, where inmates live in dormitories and work in factories.

Valery Borschov, a former member of the Russian Parliament who served on a committee focusing on prison reform, told The New York Times in 2021 that inmates sometimes share a room with another 40 to 80 men, making it very hard to just exist there.

The Times reported that sewing military uniforms had replaced the arduous work of mining and harvesting timber in Josef Stalin’s gulags.

According to Olga Romanova, the leader of a prisoners’ rights organization, Vladimir Putin of Russia “wants to have a frightening instrument in his hands”. You require a location where everyone is terrified to go. 684 of Russia’s 692 prisons were penal colonies in 2021.

The Russian Prison System

The majority of Russian prisons and penal colonies were constructed during the Stalinist era. Despite numerous attempts to reform the Russian prison system, it still resembles the Soviet Gulag: torture and human rights abuses are widespread, and the prison service is a well-oiled machine that knows how to conceal pathologies and make extra.

The high rate of recidivism in the Russian prison system is one of the most concerning statistics. It has increased in recent years and serves as evidence of the overall inefficiency of the prison system.

However, despite its inefficiency, Russia’s prison system serves as a key component of the machinery that maintains the country’s political order and exerts control over society. There are no plans to reform the prison system, according to President Putin, who stated as much during his yearly press conference on December 20, 2018.

In response to a question regarding potential FSIN reform in light of reports of prisoners being tortured, he said that while improving the efficiency of the prison system would be necessary, more substantial changes are not required.

The lack of independent institutions monitoring what occurs in prisons exacerbates the system’s repressive nature as a whole and creates new opportunities for using it as a tool of political repression.

As a result, the FSIN functions as a distinct “state within a state,” lacking oversight mechanisms while possessing its own health care system, transportation system, education system, and unique system of trading in goods that is characterized by widespread corruption and the precedence of unofficial rules and hierarchies over formal ones, as is typical of Russian power structures.

There is no sign that the practice of using imprisonment as a useful tool to remove disobedient citizens, as well as political and business rivals, will be curbed in the coming years. There is also no sign that reports on prisoners’ behavior will be made.

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