Brittney Griner Describes Life Behind Bars As ‘Putin’s Pawn’ in New Book

In “Coming Home,” the WNBA star recounts her harrowing ordeal behind bars in Russia, where she was arrested for having near-empty cannabis oil containers in her luggage.Updated May 04, 2024 10:00AM EDT / Published May 04, 2024 4:05AM EDT Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty imagesBrittney Griner, the 6-foot-9-inch WNBA player known for having broken barriers in women’s basketball, including

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In “Coming Home,” the WNBA star recounts her harrowing ordeal behind bars in Russia, where she was arrested for having near-empty cannabis oil containers in her luggage.

Eboni Boykin-Patterson

A photo illustration of Brittney Griner

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty images

Brittney Griner, the 6-foot-9-inch WNBA player known for having broken barriers in women’s basketball, including for being the first openly gay athlete to score a Nike deal, recounts the miserable 10 months she spent imprisoned in Russia in her new book Coming Home, which she wrote alongside frequent celeb memoir collaborator Michelle Burford.

On Feb. 17, 2022, Griner was detained in Russia en route to join her team UMMC Ekaterinburg when nearly empty cannabis vape pens were discovered in her luggage. She was held in various Russian jails for 10 months, before escaping the nine-year prison sentence from a Russian court in August 2022. She was ultimately released via prisoner swap, after Russia agreed to her release in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout in December that year.

Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner, an attorney who had to graduate law school and pass the bar without wife Brittney by her side, championed her release by making public pleas in the media and calling out President Joe Biden for not helping more swiftly (the book describes how Biden warned Cherelle that Putin sees her criticisms of him in the media, which could work to their disadvantage). Two years after reuniting, the couple are now expecting their first child—but Griner hadn’t told the full story of her experience, until now.

Published on May 7, Griner’s book details what life behind bars in Russia was like, particularly for a very tall, “flat-chested,” openly gay, Black woman, and just how terrified she was that might not ever make it home. Complicating the possibility of her release was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, after which, Griner writes in the book, she became “Putin’s Pawn.”

She recounts the moment her luggage was intercepted at the Russian airport, in chilling detail

If you were following the news in 2022, you’ve heard the story. Griner was in a rush and had nearly missed her flight to join her team overseas when her bags were searched at customs. In Coming Home, she describes how the Russian customs officials seemed to be “singling out” foreigners and seemed to be “looking for something.” She recalls waiting confidently (although impatiently) as drug sniffing dogs examined the bags of waiting passengers. A police officer’s daughter, Griner felt comfortable she could easily interpret the dogs’ reactions—but was stunned when she was chosen for a more intense search.

She describes the terror she felt upon opening up her own bag in front of customs agents and seeing the near empty cannabis cartridges she’d accidentally left in her bag. As she was escorted away and told to wait, she knew she was probably in big trouble as time ticked away and her connecting flight took off without her. If you’ve ever packed in a hurry, it’s a pretty relatable horror story.

When agents finally returned to let her know her fate, she was officially arrested for bringing drugs into the country—but “I didn’t go straight to hell,” she wrote, as officers first drove her around town “with her knees jammed up to her shoulders” for tests and intake before she landed in the first of many cells. “On February 15, I left Phoenix in a frenzy, my heart of [my wife],” she writes, “Three hellish days later, just before dawn, I lost my freedom, my peace, my life as I’d known it.”

Her sexuality was treated as an additional crime

Griner writes that the questioning she endured leading up to her hearings often included questions about her sexuality. “How often do you have sick thoughts?” she writes she was asked by a psych doctor leading up to her trial. “I don’t have sick thoughts,” and “there is no ‘often,’” she replied via translator. In addition to being photographed naked multiple times, Griner also recalls how a doctor “shined a light up my butt.”

She also knew to keep her sexuality under wraps: “Being gay is frowned upon. That disapproval often isn’t voiced. It’s understood.” She writes that as a prisoner, she had to grapple with “three labels some Russians found interchangeable: Addict. Crazy. Gay.”

She describes the prison conditions she endured: freezing temperatures, spoiled food, no toiletries—the list goes on

While waiting for her release, Griner describes how it became easier to quit hoping and accept her circumstances. “Letting go of hope is sometimes the most optimistic thing you can do,” she writes. She describes the moldy, expired toothpaste she was given along with the other prisoners, how she was forced to sleep on mattresses with blood stains, endured freezing cold temperatures as her long hair kept her wet and sick, and how chronic pain she’d dealt with for years prior worsened, as she was forced into cramped tiny spaces as she slept and was transported. The food she was given often tasted spoiled.

She was rarely allowed to shower, and when she did, she was forced to do so under cruelly inquisitive eyes. Griner ultimately made friends with a cellmate, who she’d press to translate some of the cruel remarks made about her body and sexuality in Russian. She shares how she’d endured many such insults growing up in Texas, resulting in a relatively thick skin about those things—but not quite thick enough to stave off a freezing Russian winter in a barely heated prison. She’d ultimately cut her long dreadlocks to stay dry in the cold temperatures. She contracted several illnesses while imprisoned. She reflects on “wanting to take my life more than once in those early weeks,” as “suicide would’ve been easy,” but she thought of her wife and stopped herself.

After learning that Russia had invaded Ukraine, she felt hopeless

In the titular chapter, she writes about how she found out that the news had broken about her detainment in Russia. After a guard turned on the TV in the jail where she was held one day, Griner describes the surreal moment when she saw herself on the screen. “I did a double take. Is that me?” she writes, as she asked her friend to translate. “They’re saying an American has been detained on drug smuggling charges,” her friend tells her—after which Griner writes, “Sometimes it takes awhile to realize you’re fucked. I knew in that moment.”

“The invasion changed everything for me,” she writes, “Suddenly, my arrest wasn’t just an arrest, and I wasn’t just another prisoner. I was a possible chess piece in a showdown between superpowers,” she continues, “The stakes had just been raised.” She goes on to call herself, “Putin’s newest pawn and prize,” which meant that she was under constant surveillance. The guards insisted she sleep on the top bunk in her detention cell, because “the top bunk was right under the camera, where the guards could monitor every twitch of my eye.” There was also a mic, “so they can see and hear me.”

She continued to feel like Putin had her life in his hands, she writes, even as she was reclassified as wrongfully detained in April 2022. The classification was a “miracle” and meant that “like Trevor [Reed], I could be traded,” but she still felt plenty of doubt, writing, “No way would Putin swap me before one of the judges in his pocket slapped me with a guilty verdict. He needed to show the world he was a political strongman.” Her dread deepened when Russian courts sentenced her to nine years in prison.

She had to write a letter to Putin before she could be swapped

Griner received the news that her freedom “might” be close when she was told of a potential prisoner swap nearly a year into her captivity. “But in order for Russia to agree to a prisoner swap,” she writes, “I’d have to address their president directly.” She didn’t get to write it in her own words, however—she writes that was handed a letter in Russian and was told to “copy it in my own handwriting on a separate piece of paper.” She acquiesced and was later told what she’d written. “I’d been forced to tell Putin ‘I repented’ for my crime, as if he were some kind of deity. That struck me as weird, but I didn’t care,” she writes. “Given what I’d endured, I’d write anything to get out of his country.”

Adjusting to being home has been a journey

While she writes about the “exhilaration” she felt at finally landing on U.S. soil and reuniting with her wife, Griner also writes about the “vitriol” that has been directed at her since her return. “On the one hand, I wanted to forget what I’d been through. On the other, I couldn’t turn away,” she writes as she enveloped herself in the news coverage and social media chatter about her story. “Horrible idea. Many applauded the president’s success in negotiating for my freedom. Just as many said I should’ve been left to rot in Russia, while others called the deal [to free her] ‘one-sided’ and said Paul Whelan, the marine, should’ve been traded instead of me.”

Though she writes that the “first months of freedom were a struggle” for both her and her wife, Griner also reveals that her emotional journey has continued in therapy. After her body recuperated from diminished muscle mass and lung capacity (due to chain smoking to pass the time and calm her nerves while in prison), Griner returned to playing professional basketball while making time for the healing process.

“I’m getting outdoors more,” she concludes at the end of the book, “I’ll just reflect in silence, thank God for bringing me back to Relle. A while later, I’ll climb back in my Jeep to crawl over rocks and squeeze between trees.”

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