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Brittney Griner’s Imprisonment in Russia: What Does it Mean for the United States?

By CY Cheng


The arrest of Brittney Griner in Russia shocked the world, especially the United States. The WNBA player was flying to Sheremetyevo International Airport from New York to compete during her off-season when she was charged with possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. According to Russian laws, this could mean up to 10 years in prison, and she was detained on February 17. Not much is known about her detainment, but she could not communicate freely with friends, family, and teammates who traveled with her. On July 7, Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling drug products into Russia and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony where she is now. According to all the media information about her, she seems to be doing well and is aware of her situation. It is reported that she follows all the rules in the colony, which include waking up at 6 am, making the bed, standing for the registry, and starting her eight-hour work day. In addition, she is paid $180 monthly, which she can spend on everyday items, including internet access. Her lawyer group is reportedly putting together an appeal to hopefully reduce her sentence, and the Biden administration also confirmed they are working on a prisoner exchange. Notably, the US government classified her case wrongfully detained, hence the extended effort to return her to the US.

This begs the question: should a person with status or fame get better treatment when it comes to imprisonment? The opinions are split. One side states that she was wrongfully detained and is being used as a political pawn for the Russian government, implying that a prisoner exchange was the goal of the Russian government from the start. The other side states that she should not be treated any differently from anyone else breaking the law in a foreign country, so she should not get a prisoner exchange effort from the US government and instead serve her entire sentence. Dani Gilbert, an expert in hostage-taking and recovery, called this phenomenon the “deservingness heuristic.” This term is often used to describe the unconscious factors that affect people’s opinions, including self-interest, media frames, and culture. The theory explains why people are rooting against her returning to the US because she was charged with possession of drugs, which made the public pay less attention and focus on her potential return. Another talking point is that Brittney Griner is an African-American homosexual woman—racism and homophobia may affect how the public perceives this case.

The situation also calls into question the morality of prisoner exchanges. The prisoner Griner might be exchanged with is a convicted arms dealer, Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death.” He smuggled weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union during the 1900s and early 2000s, and was arrested in Thailand and returned to the United States for imprisonment. Trading someone that dangerous might pose another threat to the United States: if the prisoner exchange goes through, does that open more opportunities for the Russian government to imprison celebrities for political gains?

Griner’s imprisonment is a complicated issue with many legislative and political factors, and there are many reasonable perspectives. The battle in the court is long and complex, and only time will tell how Griner’s lawyer group, the Biden Administration, and the Russian government will handle this case.

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