Brittney Griner Reveals Sexual Harassment, Suicidal Ideations During Russian Prison Sentence

Now that nearly two years have passed since W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner served a nine-month sentence for cannabis possession at a Russian penal colony, she has begun speaking out about the suffering she experienced while behind bars. In a New York Times interview, Griner said she felt dehumanized when a guard fastened a chain to her handcuffs, treating her like a dog, and how, in another instance, doctors forced her to undress so they could photograph her nude. In her darkest moments, she contemplated death by suicide. She’ll be releasing a memoir recounting her experience, Coming Home, on Tuesday.

Griner, who is now 33, had gone to Russia in February 2022 to play basketball for an opportunity to net more than $1 million. But in Moscow, customs officials found a cartridge of medically prescribed cannabis oil in her back pocket. In Russia, it was illegal. “Oh, this is about to be bad,” she said. Then, the officials found another cartridge.

In an interview with ABC on Wednesday, Griner described packing the cartridges as an “absent-minded” mistake while rushing to leave her house.

The Times reported that they forced her to sign documents in Russian and charged her with smuggling a “significant amount” of marijuana — 0.7 grams by their own measures — into Russia. She faced 10 years in prison, and the equivalent of a $15,000 fine. Her situation escalated when Russia invaded Ukraine, turning her confinement into an international flash point.

Griner said that because of the cold conditions in the prison and no hairdryers after showers, she decided to cut her locs so she wouldn’t catch pneumonia. That was one of the more uplifting moments. She was placed in a room with 20 other women and had to share a bathroom with 50. While in prison, she was tasked with sewing Russian military uniforms for 12 – 15 hours a day. The food she ate had spoiled. She rarely heard from her wife, Cherelle, or family members.

When guards peeped at her through a hole in the small room they were holding her in, she considered suicide. “I’ve never been so dirty in my life,” she told the Times. “I felt horrible.” She echoed these sentiments in her ABC interview.

An English-speaking friend she made in prison warned her to avoid medical examinations since herpes and H.I.V. were common in the prison, according to the Times. A person who was rumored to be a former veterinarian helped her with an eye infection.

Prison guards taunted her and asked her about her genitals. After a shower one day, a guard stopped her and leered at her, using a baton to remove the towel that covered her breasts. She said she felt helpless.

In her first days of confinement, her Russian lawyers helped her get a basketball so she could continue to practice, but she felt the effects of idleness and atrophy setting in. She also turned to the Bible for solace. A note from her father helped lift her spirits, too. “I love you and always will, no matter where you are,” he wrote. “Nothing and nobody can change that.” Later, when she was at the penal colony, she volunteered to shovel snow as a form of a workout.

She pleaded guilty that July, hoping that deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin would get her a reduced sentence. And she sent a letter to President Biden asking him not to forget her. Biden reached out to Griner’s wife, asking her not to go public as his administration was negotiating a prisoner swap. Her teammates from the Phoenix Mercury and Rev. Al Sharpton sought to raise the profile of Griner’s case. Prominent Black women like Kerry Washington and Roxane Gay also championed Griner, drawing more attention to her case. Nevertheless, a Russian judge sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony built on the site of a former gulag in Mordovia.

After months of grueling work, mottled with a few kindnesses from her fellow prisoners (a bigger bed, mittens), she received word from the U.S. embassy that a prisoner swap could take place in November 2022. In December, she was transported to another facility, where a guard slipped her a note informing her of her imminent release. The next day, doctors forced her to undress completely for photos. She was then flown to Abu Dhabi, where the State Department received her in exchange for a notorious Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. She arrived home in December.

Once home, she attempted to resume normal life — even though her wife had had to move after people doxed their address — and she returned to the Mercury last May. Still, she said she felt unlike her old self. “People say it’s OK to not be OK,” Griner told the Times. “But what the hell does that mean? Just cry when I want to cry? Or be angry when I want to be angry? Or does that mean talking about it? Like, I had to figure that out.” She said she now feels paranoia about travel (though she intends to play at the Olympics in Paris) and claustrophobia when in a small room.


She told the Times she intends to continue to play ball, advocate for the release of other imprisoned Americans, including Paul Whelan and journalist Evan Gershkovich, and cultivate her private life. She and her wife are already expecting their first child.

Griner’s imprisonment will be the focus of a documentary and a scripted series produced, respectively, by ESPN and ABC Signature.