Americans are rightly decrying Putin’s Russia for attempting to lock someone away for years over a trumped up-drug offense. But for marginalized communities in the United States, that’s a not so foreign experience

ON THURSDAY MORNING, from the White House lawn, President Joe Biden announced Brittney Griner would be coming home, proclaiming “I’m proud that today we have made one more family whole again.” But among the millions of families made incomplete by the American carceral state, many won’t share his pride in the United States. 

Griner’s release was garnered through a “prisoner swap” in which Biden freed and sent convicted arms Viktor Bout dealer to Russia. Her arrival back to her home country ends a nine-month-long ordeal that began when the basketball star, in Russia to play in one of the country’s basketball leagues, was detained at a Russian airport for having cartridges containing hashish oil. Throughout 2022, her arrest, and subsequent nine-year sentence, were publicly condemned by public officials, activists, fellow athletes, entertainers, and Biden, who in August called her sentence “unacceptable” and demanded her “immediate release.”

He speaks for millions of American citizens who agree that Griner’s release is a positive development. It’s easy for him, and other Americans to point the finger at Putin, but we’re not doing enough about the failings of our own criminal justice system. 

Americans gasped at Griner’s plight in a remote Russian penal colony, where no one knew her whereabouts and she was subject to a facility defined by what Reuters describes as “tedious manual work, poor hygiene and lack of access to medical care.” But similar human rights abuses exist in the American prison system. Brittney Griner’s incarceration was national news — even though it would have been even more amplified if she wasn’t a Black queer woman — but the American criminal justice system’s failings are often seen as an ancillary issue compared to world affairs, mass shootings, and Oscar slaps. Few currently incarcerated people have Griner’s mesh of notoriety and mass advocacy, but their families love them just the same. Of course, even other celebrities are subject to mistreatment, as rapper YNW Melly recently revealed that he’s facing “mistreatment, discrimination and misuse of authority” as well as “mental and emotional abuse” at Florida’s Broward County Jail.

On September 26th, thousands of incarcerated people in Alabama state prisons went on strike because of what incarcerated activist Kinetik Justice deemed a “humanitarian crisis.”

“Our lives don’t mean anything. Our lives don’t have any value. So, nobody cares that 100 people have overdosed,” Justice told criminal justice publication Vera. The organizers, who paused the strike in October, are seeking massive decarceration because of malnutrition, dilapidated facilities, overcrowding, and other abuses.  

Griner was rightfully labeled a Russian political prisoner, but the U.S. Government has numerous people in the carceral state who are also deemed as political prisoners. In 1981, Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death (since scaled back to a life sentence) in Philadelphia for murder in a case in which witnesses were bribed, Black jurors were excluded, and Judge Albert Sabo, according to a court stenographer. said he was “going to help them fry the n—–.” (Sabo, who died in 2002, denied he made the remark). Indigenous activist Leonard Peltier was sentenced to life for allegedly killing two FBI agents, through there’s little evidence that he committed the crimes and multiple witnesses have said their since-recanted statements were made under FBI duress. Joy Powell is a Rochester, New York-based activist who challenged police brutality and was then convicted of burglary and assault with no evidence or witnesses. While serving her 16-year sentence for the assault, she was given another 25-year sentence for a cold case murder which she says she was falsely convicted of. Incarcerating people for political purposes is no anomaly in America. The plight of currently incarcerated Ferguson activist Joshua Williams, sentenced to eight years for stealing chips and lighting a trash can on fire during a 2014 Mike Brown protest, indicates that it’s a reliable part of the state’s toolkit to suppress freedom fighters. 

By MD Abdullah

Abdullah is a former educator, lifelong money nerd, and a Plutus Award-winning freelance writer who specializes in the scientific research behind irrational money behaviors. Her background in education allows her to make complex financial topics relatable and easily understood by the layperson. She is the author of four books, including End Financial Stress Now and The Five Years Before You Retire.

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