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Brittney Griner recounts 'degrading' and 'dirty' conditions of Russian detention

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you were paying attention to the news in 2022, then you know this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was apparently detained last month.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Brittney Griner's detention in Russia has been extended now based...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Brittney Griner convicted today on drug charges in Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Today a Russian judge gave her a nine-year sentence...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: ...After the U.S. and Russia worked out a swap deal.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: WNBA star Brittney Griner is headed home.

SUMMERS: But the story we didn't know was how Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner felt throughout her ordeal, being convicted in Russia on drug charges and eventually released in a prisoner swap. I spoke with Griner, who's sharing that story in heart-wrenching detail for the first time.

BRITTNEY GRINER: It was very harsh.

SUMMERS: She's out with a new memoir called "Coming Home." In the book, Griner recounts being mentally and physically humiliated by guards, constant pain from squeezing her 6'9" frame into cramped beds and cages, and cutting her locks because it was so cold that her hair literally froze.

GRINER: I did not feel like a human, and I just - everything was setting in on the unknown.

SUMMERS: Before her arrest, she was on her way to play a final season with Russia's EuroLeague team. She'd been feeling a pull to stay in Phoenix with her wife, Cherelle, right up until the day she left.

GRINER: I felt like the universe was kind of telling me, like, hey; don't go - from waking up late to couldn't find my phone. But I had to finish what I started, though.

SUMMERS: As Brittney Griner and I kept talking, she told me what prompted her to play overseas in the first place, and what it was like the moment that she realized she'd accidentally left two vape cartridges with traces of doctor-prescribed cannabis oil in her luggage.

GRINER: Oh, my God. It's kind of like one of those moments, like, people talk about before, like, a crash or something. And you see, like, your life flash. Or it's just like the breath is completely took out of your lungs. That's the exact feeling. Like, I don't know, elevator, and it just fell. And I literally started contemplating everything that could go wrong.

SUMMERS: That was the start of a story for you that you detail in this book. And for those that may be hearing these details, this part of your story for the first time, can you describe some of the conditions and situations that you faced, first in detention, then during your trial and later in the labor camp?

GRINER: Yeah. The detention center - I'll never forget the first day walking into quarantine and literally see some scissors and a pretty nice-sized knife just sitting on the table. And I'm like, well, this is already different. One person barely spoke English a little bit. So it was a lot of pointing and just unknown, not knowing if my lawyer knows where I'm at or if anyone knows where I'm at to - I basically had to drink this milky sediment water that came out of the sink. Just the isolation, the super just filthy - the most filthiest place you can think of times 10, you know, those conditions on top of the blistering cold and having to stand outside.

SUMMERS: You wrote that at one point, you had thoughts of ending your life. How often did you feel like that?

GRINER: Definitely when I got put in the county cell. And I had literally nothing - no toothbrush, no soap, no necessities. And I had to take a shirt and rip it up into different pieces to use to clean myself, wash off with. It was the most degrading and just flat out dirtiest I've ever felt in my whole entire life. I did not feel like a human at that point. And I just - everything was setting in on the unknown. I didn't know anything at that point. Like, it was very early on. And I just sat there and thought about ending it, just came up with a plan on how I could do it. But, you know, after a couple of days, you know, and just thinking about it, you know, days, you know, what is my mom going to say? You know, what is my dad, my brother, my sister, my wife - you know, I couldn't do that to them. I already am locked up abroad. I can't add any more stress to them like that.

SUMMERS: You write about your time in Russian detention in prison, but you also talked so much about the ways in which you had already been denied certain privileges and freedoms because of your appearance, because you're a Black queer woman. And I don't know. I can't help but see some clear parallels between those two situations.

GRINER: Yeah. You know, I've definitely seen the other side of being discriminated against, you know, with just being part of the LGBT community and being a Black athlete and, you know, being told, you know, that I need to shut up and play. I'm just an athlete. I just need to be grateful. The pay inequity that we have in between our league and the men's league. And, I mean, quite frankly, that's why I was even in Russia in the first place - to make up that pay gap that we have here, unfortunately.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you about that pay gap. I mean, we're in this moment that is an incredible celebration of women's sports, of women's basketball due to some of the superstars in the college game who recently were drafted. And yet, this pay gap that you've discussed prominently still persists. How do you square those things? How are you feeling about this moment for your sport?

GRINER: I mean, I'm feeling hopeful for sure. I mean, just this last March Madness, you know, the ratings definitely show that people are tuning into the women's game. We've come a long way. And, you know, with Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, even the younger ones coming up, Paige and JuJu, it's just going to keep getting better. We're just going to keep growing and keep pushing the envelope.

SUMMERS: That's WNBA star Brittney Griner, whose new book "Coming Home" is out tomorrow. We also talked about her push for the release of other Americans locked up abroad and the even bigger life change ahead for her. You can hear that elsewhere in the show and on the NPR app. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.