JOHN KIRIAKOU: American Gulag

Western journalists are providing breathless depictions of the harsh conditions facing U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in Russia. Have none of them been inside a U.S. prison? 

Brittney Griner in 2019. (Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

All of the major media outlets announced recently that former American women’s basketball sensation Brittney Griner had been moved to a “Russian penal colony” after an appellate court rejected the appeal of her conviction and sentence of nine years for trying to smuggle a vial of THC oil into Russia.

The sentence is draconian, but it’s not unlike drug sentences here in the United States.  But that’s not the point that I want to make here.  What I do want to point out is the U.S. media’s use of the term “Russian penal colony.”  Other outlets have thrown out the word “gulag,” harkening back to the days of Josef Stalin.

NBC News reported that Griner was “transferred to a penal colony, the successor to the infamous Russian gulag.”  Insider Magazine said that Griner “fears facing inhumane treatment at Russia’s penal colonies, where abuse is common, disease, is rampant, and labor is forced.”

Even the storied UPI, United Press International, said that Griner is going to a penal colony, “the descendant of the notorious Soviet-era gulags, where prisoners have been subjected to harsh treatment and poor conditions.  Prisoners in the system have been beaten by other inmates, endured torture, and forced to watch Russian propaganda for hours every day.” 

These breathless admonitions are nothing more than a bad joke.  Have none of these journalists and writers ever been inside an American prison?  They wouldn’t have far to look to see that the U.S. prison system gains nothing by casting aspersions on the Russian system or pretty much any other.

Violence also continues to be a problem in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP.)

Alec Arapahoe

Federal Correctional Complex, Florence, Colorado, 2019. (Prison Insight, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Alec Arapahoe, a Native American, was 21 when he arrived at the BOP’s medium-security Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) in Florence, Colorado. He tried to hide his homosexuality but another Native American prisoner, William Mexican, a gang member, had already heard that Arapahoe was gay.

Mexican attacked Arapahoe, extorted money from him, accused him of being gay and threatened to rape him. Eventually, the Native Americans at the prison met on the recreation yard and, after a disagreement that neared violence, a faction led by Mexican “voted Arapahoe off the yard” due to his sexual orientation. That meant Arapahoe had to leave the prison immediately or be beaten.

Arapahoe asked his stepmother to call the prison and intervene to help him seek protective custody status. She did, and he was placed in the Segregated Housing Unit at USP Florence, a maximum-security facility adjacent to the prison.

Staff who investigated the protective custody request found a video recording of the meeting on the yard and interviewed Mexican, who said there would be trouble for Arapahoe if he returned. They nonetheless filed a report stating they could find no evidence to support Arapahoe’s claim that he was in danger.

Mexican was later transferred to the USP and, because a staff member only looked at his paperwork, not Arapahoe’s, he was placed in a cell with Arapahoe.

Arapahoe told the guards who escorted Mexican to his cell that he was nervous about having Mexican celling with him, but Mexican assured them there would be no problems and they left.

USP Florence. (U.S. Department of Justice, Wikimedia Commons)

Over the course of the next three days, Mexican repeatedly assaulted Arapahoe, forced him to perform oral sex and anally raped him. Arapahoe repeatedly stationed himself in front of the cell’s video camera, often covered in blood, and hit the cell’s distress button, but no one came to investigate.

Mexican forced Arapahoe to face the back wall when food was delivered, so staff could not see his injuries. Finally, Mexican left the cell to go to recreation and, as soon as the cell door closed, Arapahoe told the escorting guards he was in danger. He was moved to another cell and a medical examination yielded evidence of the sexual assaults.

An internal BOP investigation found that staff had failed to conduct cell checks every 30 minutes, as required by regulations, and had falsified documentation to show they had performed the rounds on time.

The investigation sustained allegations of “inattention to duty,” “failure to follow policy” and “falsification of documents” against 26 employees.  Arapahoe won $750,000 in a lawsuit against the BOP.

Morgan Greenburger

Sing Sing prison seen from Rockland Lake State Park. (Brett Weinstein/Wikipedia)

Earlier this year, a federal judge in New York awarded $273,246.88 to a prisoner who alleged that a guard beat him brutally and lied about the incident. 

Morgan Greenburger, a mentally ill prisoner, told a guard that he had eaten a toothbrush and he asked to be taken to the medical unit.  He was placed on “special watch,” where he was supposed to be under constant supervision so as not to hurt himself again. 

Greenburger asked guard Phillip Roundtree for a bottle so that he could urinate.  Roundtree told him to wait 15 minutes.  Greenburger asked again 15 minutes later, and Roundtree responded, “You sure you want it?”  He then placed the bottle just inside Greenburger’s cell.  When Greenburger reached down to pick it up, Roundtree began pummeling him with a baton on the back, arms, head, and shoulders so hard that the baton splintered into pieces.

Two hours later, other guards took Greenburger to a hospital, where he received five staples to close the wound on his head.  Greenburger was also charged with “initiating an assault” and “refusing a direct order.”  He was given 50 days in solitary confinement.

Nearly a year later, after Greenburger was released from solitary, the verdict was reversed and he filed his federal action.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, we’re supposed to believe that medical care in American prisons is oh so much better than it is in Russian prisons? 

Marques Davis 

As just one example, let’s look at the case of Marques Davis.  The 27-year-old was a prisoner in the Kansas Department of Corrections, where Corizon, the largest prison “healthcare solutions provider” has an exclusive contract to provide medical care. 

Davis went to a Corizon nurse saying that he felt weakness in his arms and legs.  The nurse determined that Davis was “malingering,” that is, making it all up so he didn’t have to work.  He was fined $2 and told not to do it again. 

Months later, with the numbness worsening, Davis began to complain that he felt like something was “eating his brain.”  In fact, something was eating his brain.  It was an untreated fungus that caused his vision to blur, his speech to slur, and his cognition to become so impaired that he began to drink his own urine. 

Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas. (Prison Insight, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Davis finally had a heart attack and was taken to a local Kansas City hospital.  A CT scan revealed “dramatic swelling of the brain.”  A day later, he was dead.  Davis’ lawyer hopes to prove in court that this was not an isolated incident, but “a clear and consistent pattern of Corizon delaying, postponing, or not providing necessary medical treatment.”

An ACLU spokesman said, “Corizon is simply writing off the damages they’re having to pay as the cost of doing business without doing anything meaningful to improve.”

And what about forced labor?  This is, perhaps, the biggest joke of all in Western coverage of Griner’s imprisonment.  The Constitution of the United States actually enshrines forced prison labor.  The 13thAmendment states quite clearly in Section 1, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Slavery exists in the United States.  It’s in black and white.

I feel sorry for Brittney Griner.  I really do.  She got a raw deal.  She didn’t appear to have criminal intent.  And Russia’s drug laws are draconian.  But so are America’s.

The media are remiss in pointing fingers at the Russians while ignoring exactly the same problems in the U.S. prison system.

Perhaps they should reflect on something that Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky opined on when he wrote, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

He was right.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

17 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: American Gulag

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    November 2, 2022 at 13:17

    What about Guantanamo? A Caribbean sea-side resort?

  2. LeoSun
    November 2, 2022 at 12:12


    As for Brittany Griner, no apologies. Just a very clear, f/off!!! Imo, Brittany Griner remains @ the back of the line, last on the list, to be freed. NO Cuts. NO exceptions. Brittany Griner’s greed NOT discipline got HER busted, banned & broke!!! GREED. The majority of women, professional, B-Ball Players always “looking for the biggest pay day,” work in Russia & China. “W/this being the case, many WNBA players take their talents overseas during the WNBA offseason to earn more money. RUSSIA is a country that CAN PAY FOUR (4) times what the WNBA pay$.” Brittany Griner workin’ two jobs, in the WNBA, 1) Phoenix Mercury, 2) She joined the Russian UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014 side after leaving Chinese team Zhejiang Golden Bulls.

    Hooping it Up. Gettin’ HER high on. EIGHT (8) years later…Busted, Broke and Groveling to be FREE!!! POTUS-V.P., “have used the typical course of action of putting out heartfelt statements; AND, DOING next nothing to help Griner, an American citizen.” WHAT ABOUT A Prisoner SWAP!?! Fuhgetabout it!

    Russia says, Griner is free to do the time, for HER crime of “deliberately bringing a cannabis oil vape cartridge into Russia.” Concluding, “The one who rides the horse of greed at a gallop will arrive at the door of shame.” (Malia proverb).

    BUT, “that’s not the point that” JOHN KIRIAKOU “wants to make here.  What JOHN KIRIAKOU “points out is the U.S. media’s use of the term “Russian penal colony.” AND, IMO, the violence, the greed, the evil perpetrated by the pigs that run the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky & JOHN KIRIAKOU are spot f/on. Itsa never f/ever ending rabbit hole, deep dive into Crimes Against Humanity, i.e., “15 Worst Prisons in the US with Horrific Inhumane Acts [Update 2022]” JUNE 10, 2022

    1. United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (Florence, CO)
    2. Men’s Central Jail And Twin Towers Correctional Facility (Los Angeles, CA)
    3. Holman Correctional Facility (Escambia County, AL)
    4. United States Penitentiary Beaumont (Jefferson County, TX)
    5. San Quentin State Prison (San Rafael, CA)
    6. Orleans Parish Prison (New Orleans, LA)
    7.. Penitentiary Of New Mexico (Santa Fe, NM0
    8. Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola, LA)
    9. Folsom State Prison (Folsom, CA)
    10. Rikers Island (Queens, NY)
    11. Sing Sing Correctional Facility (Ossining, NY)
    12. Attica Prison (Attica, NY)
    13. Ely State Prison (Ely, NV)
    14. United States Penitentiary Pollock (Grant Parish, LA)
    15. Pelican Bay State Prison (Crescent City, CA)

    If ya wanna know the nitty-gritty, hit this, hxxps:// (WARNING: It’s NOT pretty).

    “THE BEST FAVOUR IS TO RESCUE THE ONE IN MOST NEED,” i.e., JULIAN ASSANGE!!! Stop the Persecution. Stop the Extradition. FREE, Julian Assange, FIRST!!!” TY.

  3. November 1, 2022 at 19:17

    She isn’t rotting in a Russian prison because of pot. She’s a political prisoner because Putin is justifiably angry at the US for decades of nasty abuse and lies; the US reneged on every treaty and promise it ever made/signed. Anyway, it was Obama, the CIA and Victoria Nuland who engineered regime change in Ukraine in 2014, tossed the legitimately elected government and put the neo Nazis in charge in Kiev. The US even trained murderous groups like the AZOV Battalion to genocide Russian speaking Ukrainians. Things were calm under Trump but the Biden Adm. is delusional, deranged and is prepping for war…using Ukraine as a pretext for its proxy war with Russian.

    Also, I believe that if Trump ever again occupies the WH that he’d end this dangerous war, defund it and get Griner back home.

  4. LHillman
    November 1, 2022 at 14:41

    I correspond with inmates in US prisons and I can attest to the inhumane conditions by how they describe the conditions and treatment they are subjected to. It is a sick joke that the prison system in the US is referred to as the “correctional” system. Having said that, the prison system in my country isn’t much better but at least it isn’t run as a business and our sentencing is less punitive. There was an attempt to privatize the prison system in Alberta a decade ago and thankfully it got shot down pretty quickly. I think the only countries with true “correctional” systems are in northern Europe, notable Norway. If the system encourages kindness and compassion by acting with kindness and compassion, then people can change because it doesn’t feed into their anger.

  5. doris
    November 1, 2022 at 11:06

    The US for-profit prison industry is an immoral conflict of interest in itself. When mass profits are made from housing humans, the motivation to rehabilitate and lower recidivism rates goes down the toilet. The opposite happens when prison lobbies get Congress and states to create more laws to keep their hideous businesses viable, making the US the largest holder of human beings in inhumane conditions in the world. It has four percent of the population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, here in the “land of the free.” Conditions are tortuous, even for those not even convicted of crimes, as cash bail keeps thousands of poor people awaiting trial for months, as their lives fall apart at the seams. With the drug war on Americans, the US is one of the most oppressive nations on the planet, domestically and internationally. Profit over people. It’s the Amerikan way. Pointing the finger at Russia leaves three fingers pointing back at itself, but most Americas are so duped by mass corporate propaganda, they’ll never see it.

  6. DMCP
    November 1, 2022 at 10:01

    I have felt for a long time (many decades) that I live in the jaws of a dragon. That, with luck, I will not get caught in its teeth, for then I would be lost, ruined. And that dragon is the American criminal justice system. I watch my step but still, it only takes a little bad luck to be in the wrong place when the teeth come down.

    The penal system is awful by design, to terrify all those who live outside it.

  7. onno37
    November 1, 2022 at 09:57

    Now you have been talking about US prison systems while ignoring the sick judicial system !! If you’re rich you’re FREE if you’re poor you HANG!!

  8. Tony Litwinko
    November 1, 2022 at 00:54

    Thank you, John, for shedding more light on this matter. The prison system here in the US is indeed founded on that 13th amendment and overlaid by industrial capitalism and politics (an industry in mostly rural areas providing an essential wage provider; construction and provisioning; fourth rate medical care; exorbitant and dishonest family communication; gangsterism. Did I miss anything?) and above all, a disgusting hypocrisy and pride in a justice system that provides justice only for the rich.

  9. Larry McGovern
    October 31, 2022 at 20:54

    Graeme rightly points to “…the barbarity some US lawmakers are only too eager to impose on Julian Assange.” I would add that he has already been victim of “barbarity” for 10 years, including psychological torture (see Nils Melzer, UN Rapporteur on Torture), while held in hellish Bellmarsh Prison in London without charge.
    In addition, we must add Guantanamo, speaking of holding persons without charge or trial. I just learned that a Pakistani businessman, held in that hellhole for 17 years without charge or any evidence, was finally released back to Pakistan at age 75!
    Just saying.
    Thank you, John, for pointing out the hypocrisy!

    • Templar
      October 31, 2022 at 23:11

      The Australian government and MSM remain silent and uninterested in the fate of its own citizen Julian Assange, who as you say, has not been convicted of any crime, yet express considerable concern about Alexei Navalny’s welfare in a high-security Russian prison.

    • Graeme
      November 1, 2022 at 01:55

      Nils Melzer’s ‘The Trial Of Julian Assange: A Story of Persecution’ has to be one of the most important books published this year. I read it twice in 10 days.
      Not surprisingly, the corporate media outlets that benefitted most from ‘Collateral Murder’ et al, and were also first to spread libellous stories, have largely ignored Melzer’s book, probably because it exposes the bastardry they pedalled.

      Currently awaiting ‘README.txt’ by Chelsea Manning which I have ordered from my local public library.

      Both books should be widely read.

  10. Jeff Harrison
    October 31, 2022 at 19:39

    Ask Maria Butina. And she didn’t even commit a crime. It’s only a crime to not register as foreign agent if you actually are a foreign agent.

  11. October 31, 2022 at 19:10

    One issue Kiriakou did not point out is the fact that not only are USA prisons just as inhumane as Russian prisons but proportionately, the USA incarcerates way more of our population than Russia. USA leads the world in incarcerations with 639 per 100,000. Russia comes in about 30th in the world with 330 per 100,000. In the top 30 list are other USA territorial or affiliated nations — Palua is 4th. Others in the top 30 are Guam, US Virgin Islands, and America Samoa. Many if not most of the top 30 are “democratic” nations. Figures from

  12. Graeme
    October 31, 2022 at 18:58

    Like most western legal systems there is precious little justice; instead what we have is a business centered around prosecution-and-defense, and incarceration.
    The system needs to be fed.

    The hypocrisy that is often accompanied by American lawmakers pronouncements, all the way to POTUS, beggars belief; the over-riding assumption that US justice is infallible, not based on socio-economic inheritance, is racist, and is free from politics is incredulous and inconsistent with the reality.

    Those John has mentioned are not well-known in my Australia; but we do of others, of Leonard Peltier, Chelsea Manning, of the threats to Edward Snowden.
    And of course there is the barbarity some US lawmakers are only to eager to impose on Julian Assange.

    Brittney Griner, like so many civilians caught in unfavourable circumstances, is a victim of the political argy-bargy between Putin and Biden, a pawn who is being manipulated by these two opportunists, and it’s all beyond her control.
    The pathetic game of one-up-MANship between Biden and Putin cares little for Griner, she’s there merely to suit their purposes and propaganda.

    • Ames Gilbert
      November 1, 2022 at 00:46

      She broke the law of the land she was a guest of. She had a trial, she was found guilty. You say it’s all beyond her control, but she made the decision to break the law; that was well within her control, and she made her choice. She may not have researched the consequences, but that is no different from any criminal anywhere, including the U.S.A, I’d guess the majority have not fully researched the consequences. Meaning, Biden may be attempting “argy-bargy”, but I’d say you are projecting if you think that Putin is doing so in this case. I’m sure you are right in saying that neither actually cares for Griner; why would they, she is a criminal who was caught and is now paying the price.

    • Henry Smith
      November 1, 2022 at 06:06

      Undoubtedly harsh and politically motivated punishment BUT she did break the, well publicised, law !
      How often do we hear of foreigners involved in drugs in Arab countries, where the penalty is death ?
      It’s like a meat grinder with a sign on it saying ‘don’t put your hand in’, they do, then blame the meat grinder. There is obviously no such thing as fool proof and drugs are a sure indicator of the decline of the West morally and mentally.

  13. October 31, 2022 at 16:49

    I’m not sure remiss is the right word. I think hypocritical is closer to the truth. In the American mainstream media, the US can do no wrong while every other country that doesn’t bend to our will is evil.

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