Some prisoners are tortured or beaten by inmates. Some have to work 16 hours a day. Some are forced to watch Russian propaganda on repeat.
This is the world of the Russian colony that Britney Griner is about to be sent to for a nine-year term.
The penal colonies are the descendants of the Gulag, the infamous Stalin-era camps where millions of Russians perished. According to human rights groups, the treatment of prisoners has improved markedly since then.
But penal colonies, many of which are scattered across Siberia like gulags and housed in barracks, continue to be characterized by brutality, overcrowding and harsh conditions, and often have a harsh prison culture.
In an interview from a penal colony last year, Russia’s most notorious prisoner, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, spoke about the schedule of gymnastics, sweeping the yard and games of chess or backgammon, as well as five daily screen time sessions where prisoners are forced to watch state television and propaganda films.
“You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp where everyone is marching in a line and there are video cameras everywhere,” he said. “There is constant monitoring and a culture of denunciation.”
In June, Mr. Navalny was transferred to a maximum-security prison where he says he spends seven-hour shifts at a sewing machine.
In 2012, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot stated that there was no hot water, no warm clothes, no medicine in the penal colony where she and her bandmate were, and that people who fell ill could die as a result.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said in 2010 that The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet penitentiary system, should be required reading for Russian students.
During her imprisonment, Ms Griner reportedly read books by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer whose work was marked by his harrowing experience in the country’s penitentiary system after he was sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia. Dostoevsky once wrote: “The degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”