Ten months. For 10 months, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. Since the day of her arrest, Griner hasn’t seen her wife, Cherelle, her family, her teammates who have been advocating tirelessly for her release, or her home. For 10 months, Griner has had to deal with the grueling conditions of Russian detainment. She was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony and was declared “wrongfully detained’ by U.S. President Joe Biden. And now, she is finally free.
After months of public outcry and calls for Griner’s freedom, early Thursday (December 8) morning, Biden confirmed that Griner was freed in a prison swap with Russia for Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.” Biden was with Cherelle Griner to deliver the news. He tweeted a picture with Cherelle with the caption, “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
Cherelle Griner has spent every day of her wife’s detainment pushing for her release. This morning, she gave an emotional statement now that her efforts have finally been successful. “Over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life,” Griner said, “[I am] overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.” Cherelle Griner also acknowledged Paul Whelan, another wrongfully detained U.S. prisoner in Russia who has been part of the negotiations for Brittney’s release. The U.S. was hoping to bring Griner and Whelan home together, but Russia was adamant for a one-to-one swap, and they specifically requested that Griner be the one released, a senior administration official for the White House said on a call with press.
“Today my family is whole, but as you are all aware, there are so many families who are not whole,” Cherelle Griner said in her statement, and committed to continuing to fight with Brittney for “getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
While Paula Whelan and Brittney Griner’s cases have been intertwined in the press, the Whelan family has said Griner’s release was the “right decision” and that they knew it was always possible one prisoner would be released without the other. “It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement. “[I] can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.”
Today is a “happy day,” as Cherelle Griner put it, but Brittney’s case is another stark reminder of the unfair treatment of Black women, especially Black queer women, around the world. “Brittney Griner's detainment in Russia is a cruel reminder of the systemic and disproportionate criminalization of Black people for minor drug-related offenses and the incarceration of Black people at large,” Dominique Symone of Black Feminist Future wrote for Unbothered when Griner was first detained. It’s also important to remember that the only reason Griner was playing overseas in Russia was because of the pay disparity in the WNBA. In order to supplement their incomes, players play internationally where their salaries can be almost triple what they get in the U.S. (a problem NBA players do not have). If Griner was paid her worth, she wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place. For 10 months, Griner dealt with inhumane conditions and fears she would never come home because of the constant inequality that women, especially Black women, face in the U.S. Russia wrongfully convicted and detained Brittney Griner, but America failed her first.
Griner is set to be home in the next 24 hours, the Biden Administration has said. Cherelle Griner thanked the WNBA players and the relentless social media campaigns (like #BringBrittneyHome) who never gave up hope that this day would come. Because of their efforts, Brittney Griner is finally free.