WNBA star Brittney Griner opens up about her imprisonment in Russia

Brushing her teeth at a long farm-like sink while other women washed their feet and other body parts right next to her. A feces-surrounded hole in the floor that served as a toilet. Using a piece of clothing as toilet paper. Standing in a blizzard for two hours for outside time. Thoughts of taking her own life.

These are some of the memories recounted Wednesday night by WNBA star Brittney Griner about her 10 months spread between a Russian jail and one of Russia’s most notorious prisons.  And while she confirmed that the experience was challenging, she told ABC’s Robin Roberts in an exclusive interview Wednesday night that her deepest worry during that time was that she’d disappointed her loved ones. 

Roberts asked how she was doing in working through those feelings.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten through it all the way,” a tearful Griner said. “I had let down everybody in my family. I’m still trying to get through that part.”

Griner broke down in tears, then said, “Everybody says give yourself grace. It’s so hard for me to do that.”

She later said she was heartbroken over disappointing her father, Raymond Griner, a former deputy sheriff.

“The Griner name was stained around the globe,” she said.

This image released by ABC News shows Robin Roberts, left, during an interview with Brittney Griner for a “20/20” special that aired Wednesday, May 1, 2024, on ABC. Photo credit: Michael Le Brecht II, ABC News via The Associated Press
This image released by ABC News shows Robin Roberts, left, during an interview with Brittney Griner for a “20/20” special that aired Wednesday, May 1, 2024, on ABC. Photo credit: Michael Le Brecht II, ABC News via The Associated Press

At the time of her arrest in at a Moscow airport, Griner, 33, a 6’9” center for the Phoenix Mercury, was spending her off seasons playing basketball in Russia because the pay was so much greater than what she made as a WNBA athlete. This is an issue that has received much attention because WNBA players make so much less than their male NBA counterparts. Many players head to Russia during the off-season to play for teams there. 

To be sure, life has been looking up since those dark days. She and her wife, Cherelle Griner, are expecting their first child this summer. And she has published a memoir, “Coming Home,” that will be released May 7.

It is a long way from Feb. 15, 2022, when it was time for Griner to head back to Russia after a week-long break with her wife at home. She felt different, she told Roberts. She woke up late, which she never does. She packed herself, although her wife usually packed for her. She felt out of sorts.

When she arrived at Moscow, where she was supposed to change planes, airport workers asked her to open her bags. As she reached in to show the workers what was inside, she felt two cartridge pens and her heart sank. They contained cannabis oil, legal in the United States and prescribed to her for the pain from her myriad basketball injuries — cracked ankle, hip impingement, lack of cartilage in her knees — but illegal in Russia.

“I just totally forgot the pen was in my bag,” she said. “I just totally felt my whole heart drop out of my body.”

Griner frantically texted her wife and her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, but it was 2 a.m. ET in the United States and they did not receive the texts until the morning.

Griner was whisked off to Correctional Colony Number One, known as IK1, to a room with a blood-stained mattress and a hole in the floor for a toilet. Authorities gave her four articles of clothing from her luggage. She used one piece of clothing as a washcloth and another piece as toilet paper.

She said she thought, “ ‘This is gonna be a ride.’ “

From there, she was placed on a train for six to eight days and taken to the notorious IK2 prison in Mordovia, Russia. Breakfast was a concrete-hard porridge, dinner was fish with more bones than meat, and her job was to cut fabric for military uniforms. Standing in a blizzard counted as recreation. The toothpaste inmates were given had expired 15 years before.

“You go there to work; there’s no rest,” Griner said. 

Her freedom came unexpectedly and swiftly, she said. She was transferred to a men’s prison, where she had to strip naked in a room full of men and also write a letter begging for forgiveness. There, she received a note instructing her to be ready to go home.

“I saw that note and I was so ready,” Griner told Roberts. 

As she headed to the plane that was to take her home, she and arms dealer Viktor Bout, a Russian who’d been imprisoned in the United States and who was exchanged for her release, wished each other well.

On the plane, her biggest disappointment was not seeing fellow American Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia since 2018.

After she landed in Texas and was reunited with her wife, she went on a food spree: Whataburger, barbecue, Dr. Pepper and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. And she spent time in nature, where she most feels like herself, she said.

“Thank God for bringing me back to real,” she said.

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