the system

Brittney Griner’s Hollow Homecoming

It’s a relief she’s back. Now free the others.

Photo: Russian Federal Security Service/UPI/Shutterstock
Photo: Russian Federal Security Service/UPI/Shutterstock

When WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February for carrying hashish oil, as many as 30,000 people were in prison in America for simple marijuana possession. By the time she was released on December 8 as part of a prisoner swap that sent arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia, President Joe Biden had pardoned “thousands” who had been convicted of the same crime at the federal level. The exonerations were meant to correct our government’s “failed approach” to criminalizing cannabis, he said, but they also helped the Biden administration save face: Russia had invaded Ukraine a week after Griner’s arrest, cementing its status as a global villain, and its decision to prosecute her was seen as an extension of this villainy — even as the country lobbying for her release was persecuting thousands of people for the same offense. But if Biden was trying to wash America’s hands, Griner got a face full of dirt. Throughout her detention, right-wing media figures blasted her as an anti-American ingrate because in the summer of 2020 she’d voiced opposition to playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before her team’s games. Now “she expects that country to come in full bore to take care of her,” said Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro in August. The criticism ramped up after Griner’s release with some people proclaiming that Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, should’ve been exchanged for Bout instead. Rather than interrogating whether the U.S. and Russia should be imprisoning people for minor crimes at all, Americans were subjected to an argument about which prisoner deserved to suffer more.

This mentality reflected an ethos that has helped make the U.S. and (to a lesser degree) Russia world leaders in incarceration, accounting for almost 3 million total prisoners between them. Each has built its justice system on punishment unmoored from any clear standard of harm. Yet Griner’s story is being read as a straightforward parable of Russian iniquity rather than as the indictment of Russo-American criminal policy and political gamesmanship that it is.

Griner’s ordeal was harrowing. A six-foot-nine phenom and one of fewer than ten WNBA players to dunk during a game, the Texas native was nine years into a celebrated career with the Phoenix Mercury before her arrest. She had been a league champion once, a scoring leader twice, and an all-star six times, but the WNBA’s famously skewed revenue-sharing agreement — until 2021, its players received roughly a 20 percent share compared to 50 percent in the men’s league — had compelled her to play in Russia during the off-season. Back in Arizona, she’d been prescribed cannabis to manage her chronic pain, and she maintained — over the period when she was detained, charged, and pleaded guilty to passing through Russia with less than a gram of her medication — that she had brought the hash-oil cartridges by mistake. Russian authorities were not moved: After a jury convicted her of drug trafficking in August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in one of the country’s notorious penal colonies — successors to the Stalin-era Gulags immortalized in the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

During those ten months, Americans got little real-time insight into how Griner was coping, but the information that managed to get through was bleak. U.S. authorities reported that she was doing “as well as can be expected under the circumstances” based on their limited interactions with her, but photos showed her to be uncommonly gaunt and haunted-looking. News outlets published stories about the conditions she faced at the labor camp in Russia’s Mordovia region, based on the testimony of former inmates: 80 women housed in one room with three toilets, no hot water, and “planklike” beds, forced to work ten-to-12-hour days sewing police and army uniforms or, in the case of inmates with a “strong, athletic build,” loading sacks of flour or unloading “mountains of coal,” according to sources interviewed by Reuters. Women there are punished with solitary confinement for infractions as minor as leaving their wristwatch on a bedside table or appearing with a coat improperly buttoned. Shortly before her release, Griner cut her signature dreadlocks in preparation for a punishing winter because every time she washed them, the cold air would give her a chill, her Russian attorney said.

Griner’s anguished wife, Cherelle, spoke with her twice during her detainment, beginning this past summer, and was struck by how much she had deteriorated between the two conversations. “It was the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced,” Cherelle told CBS. “I don’t know if she has anything left in her tank to continue to wake up every day and be in a place where she has no one.”

There’s plenty to be outraged about concerning Griner’s treatment and plenty more to celebrate now that she is free. But it’s striking how aptly her conditions could describe those in the U.S., where she and Cherelle were recently reunited: Poorly compensated labor, overcrowding, squalid housing, solitary confinement, mental stability pushed to the breaking point, mounting hopelessness — all par for the course in the land of San Quentin and Parchman Farm. And if Russia’s villainy is reflected in the cruel way it treats its prisoners, then the plantation at Angola prison merits a similar indictment. If the misery that radiated outward from Griner’s incarceration suggests a system in which abject callousness is the norm — affecting her wife, her teammates, her league — then the suicide of Kalief Browder points to the same conclusion. U.S. officials and foreign-policy experts insisted that Griner was wrongfully detained, the victim of a politically motivated abduction inspired by American sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s government. Such an outcry rings hollow in a country where presidential clemency is withheld depending on how it might affect an election and tough-on-crime politics remain stubbornly en vogue.

Griner seemed to recognize that her life had become a political football. “She’s saying things to me like, ‘My life just don’t even matter no more,’” Cherelle continued on CBS. “‘Like, I’m just being tossed around for people’s enjoyment and gain.’ ” It’s widely believed that Putin slow-walked this prisoner swap until after the U.S. midterms so he could deny Biden a preelection victory. If such games did not vindicate Griner’s disillusionment, then the chorus of conservatives insisting that her protests made her unworthy of freedom surely did.

Countless people across the U.S. deserve the kind of reunion that Brittney and Cherelle Griner enjoyed in San Antonio, and there are many more levers that Biden could pull to make it happen — marijuana amnesty was one, but he has otherwise been frugal with his clemency powers. He’s far from alone: The officials and everyday citizens willing to tolerate mass suffering as long as it targets people branded as criminals are the lifeblood of local criminal-justice systems, in which most of that suffering takes place. Griner’s release is as good an opportunity as any to reassess. The spotlight on her predicament showed that her life was too full and meaningful for the fate to which the Russian criminal system had condemned it. The next step is recognizing that this was not because she is famous and talented, or was geopolitically useful at that particular moment, but because she is human — and America’s jails and prisons are overflowing with humans like her, desperate for the same chance.

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Brittney Griner’s Hollow Homecoming