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An Abolitionist Critique of Brittney Griner’s Incarceration

Photo by Jimmy Chan

The Biden administration orchestrated a swap for 32-year-old American basketball player Brittney Griner this week. Griner got her freedom, and the world got back infamous Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted for exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to international terrorists.

Griner’s crime of carrying vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil isn’t comparable to the crimes of a guy called the “Merchant of Death," but that’s a side item in a much bigger debate.

The world watched in horror as the Russian government arrested, tried, and sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for carrying a legal prescription authorized in her home state of Arizona. Political commentators and fellow athletes described her as a political pawn in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While that’s true, it’s equally important to emphasize Griner’s identity as a queer, Black woman—and the social disposability that comes with that identity, despite her apparent worth.

Griner is a staggeringly successful American athlete. She is an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. She is also a daughter, sister, wife, and she matters to her community and family. Her intrinsic value could not protect her from a preexisting, worldwide system of global disenfranchisement and anti-Blackness, however. And her arrest and mistreatment put that system on the international stage in a spectacular fashion.

For a time, the U.S. media got to focus on the cruelty of the Russian prison system and its grueling penal colonies. And while it’s important not to play down the horrors of overseas prisons, the experiences of incarcerated Black people in the U.S. are not so different from what Griner suffered. Griner merely put a famous face on it.

According to The Sentencing Project, Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times that of white Americans. Similar to Griner’s situation, drug offenses play a huge role in the criminalization of racialized people, and the Prison Policy Initiative determines “police, prosecutors, and judges continue to punish people harshly for nothing more than drug possession.” Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of almost 400,000 people, they say, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system.

Griner getting busted over weed oil is particularly galling considering the criminalization of cannabis has always been, and continues to be, a matter of race in the U.S. According to the anti-mass incarceration NGO Vera, Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession despite white and Black people using marijuana at roughly equal rates. The media should not be able to highlight the injustice of Griner’s arrest in Russia without reckoning with the U.S. similarly using marijuana possession to disenfranchise Black folks for more than a century.

Russia’s abuse of Griner on the international stage is merely an overt mirror of U.S. policy on race, incarceration and drug possession. In fact, any conversation about the cruelties of her imprisonment should be accompanied by a hard look at the mass-incarceration of Black people, other racialized people and working-class people on a global scale. Griner’s case is but an escalation of a reality across the world.

According to the anti-incarceration coalition a World Without Prisons, Black people, impoverished people and other racialized people are always waking up in cages, far away from their families and cut off from their networks. While studies about the incarceration of Black and brown people across the globe are scarce, the “color of incarceration,” as phrased by Rita Segato, is non-white.

In a piece Segato wrote about incarceration in Latin America, she argues, “The scarce information we have about the selectivity of the penal systems reveals that it discriminates against the non-white population.”

A report by World Prison Brief that tracks incarceration patterns across the world, including Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the U.S., India, Thailand, the U.K., Hungary, the Netherlands, and Australia, concluded that prison systems disproportionately “harm poor and marginalized groups in all societies, including non-nationals and cultural and ethnic minority groups.”

Griner clearly deserves freedom, but so do legions of incarcerated folks caged for cannabis possession in the U.S. and elsewhere.


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