Prisoner Swap: drug wars, prison conditions, & trafficking weapons

It is difficult to imagine how the lives of Viktor Bout and Brittany Griner could become entwined under any circumstances other than what actually happened. On December 8, 2022, the U.S. and Russia traded Bout and Griner in a prisoner swap at an airport in Abu Dhabi.

Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, somehow these two lives, prison tales, and the global legal and illegal arms trade combined in an unexpected and fleeting moment.

From Left to Right:Brittany Griner, Russian handler, Russian handler, Viktor Bout, and an American handler, on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. Source: Screen grab from Russian tv released footage.

Viktor Bout is ethnically Ukrainian and was born in 1967 in the former Soviet Union in today’s Tajikistan. He gained international notoriety for his skill in flying anything, anywhere. Among the cargo he excelled at delivering was weaponry from abandoned stockpiles in former Soviet states. More than a logistics operator, he also sourced weaponry for willing buyers. A sting operation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency led to his capture in 2008 in Thailand. A subsequent trial found guilty him of conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to a terrorist group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC]).  He was sentenced to 25 years in an American federal prison, much of his time spent at USP-Marion, in southern Illinois.

The first Federal ‘supermax’ prison, USP-Marion was known for its innovation in solitary confinement, locking people into cells 23 hours a day, with prison officials “making no pretense of rehabilitation, prison officials focused on exerting physical and psychological dominance over” incarcerated people. In 2006, a major renovation expanded the prison’s capacity and changed its classification. Today, USP-Marion houses 1146 men in medium security and another 172 at the ‘camp’, a minimum security wing. According to the Bureau of Prisons handbook, “General wake-up for all inmates is 6:00 a.m. UNICOR work call is at 7:15 a.m. General work call is at 7:30 a.m.” Labour in American prisons is often compulsory and people are paid $0 to 30 cents an hour. At USP-Marion, there is daily “leisure time”, evenings after work for those with jobs, which allows for discretionary activities. Then at 10:00 p.m. everyone is locked into their cell.

Brittany Griner was born after the end of the Cold War, in 1991. She is a Black lesbian, who became a public figure through her stunning basketball career. Born and raised in Texas, she dominated the sport at her high school, in college at Baylor University, and eventually in the WNBA. A leading American athlete, she helped win two Olympic gold medals in women’s basketball for the U.S. During the professional basketball off-season, she played in China and, starting in 2014, in Russia. On February 17, 2022 – a week before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine – Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport when a search of her luggage found vape cartridges and less half a gram of hash oil. While she had a medical marijuana prescription in Arizona, in Russia marijuana is illegal. Her case was heard before a court in July 2022, and she was sentenced to nine years in prison, to be served at Female Penal Colony IK-2, in Yavas.

According to Olga Romanova, who works with the prison rights group Russia Behind Bars, Griner likely lived in barracks with 80 – 120 women and worked at a clothing manufacturing facility, where women are earn a pittance for their labor, as low as the equivalent of $7.00/month. Romanova stresses that the prison requires exercise and labour, women are not allowed to rest during the day.

Last week, Bout and Griner were released from the respective prisons that held them and flown to Abu Dhabi. They saw each other for only moments — the swap was finalized and each returned to their home country.

It is unequivocally wonderful news that Brittany Griner is back at home with her family. My hope is that another American held in a Russian prison, Paul Whelan, also comes home soon. I also join with others who daily work to support homecomings across the U.S. – that is, efforts to help people get out of prison and support their efforts to assemble the pieces of their lives. This work is relentless in the U.S., which remains the world’s leader in locking up its own citizens. With an estimated 2 million people in detention centers run by local, state, federal, including immigration, authorities. The U.S. incarceration rate is 664 per 100,000 people – as opposed, for example, to Russia, whose rate is 329 per 100,000 (2021).

For those concerned with militarism, security, and criminal justice, the prisoner swap contains a tangled knot of complications. Below I pull on five threads.

Thread #1: The politics of ‘criminal’ acts

Brittany Griner’s story – a Black woman facing excessive punishment from a criminal justice system due to the possession of a small amount of drugs — resonates with long-standing American practices.

President Joe Biden tried to mitigate the ironies of the situation: announcing on October 6, 2022, that Americans with federal convictions for marijuana possession would be pardoned. However, no one is incarcerated in federal prisons for marijuana possession alone. It is only a charge that is piled on top of other, more serious, federal charges. Biden’s statement likely emerged in relation to several factors – above all else the fundamental shift in popular opinion on marijuana. Undoubtedly, Griner’s arrest in Russia also contributed to it. Changing the federal position on marijuana lightened the chances that demands for her release would flounder on hypocrisy.

Perhaps most consequentially, Biden took the opportunity to urge state governors to do the same: “Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”

Biden addressed his remarks to governors, because In a majority of U.S. states, marijuana remains illegal. In 2021, the most recent year for which there is data, 170,856 people were arrested for marijuana possession. While not all arrests result in conviction, arrests alone can be terribly costly. Legal fees, making bail – or not – can have significant secondary impacts. The severity of the impacts varies depending on one’s income level – if you’re already struggling to make ends meet, a little disruption can cause significant potentially life-altering detrimental impacts. If someone loses income or even a job as a result of being arrested, that can alter their ability to maintain housing and their ability to safeguard their children’s welfare. Sentences for marijuana possession vary depending on the form and amount of the substance, and/or whether it is someone’s first arrest, but for the small amount Griner had, punishment lingers around 1 year and fines in most states that criminalize possession — compared with the 9 years that Griner faced in Russia.

Other biases impact arrest in the U.S. — notably, race. An 2020 ACLU report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” found that “on average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates” (5). Racial disparities were found in every state.

That American criminal justice is replete with racial biases is a fact repeated today to the point where it is almost cliché. Nonetheless, recognition rarely results in policies that grapple seriously with the implications for change or the consequences for minorities. Our biased criminal justice system repeatedly batters the same communities, hammering away at fragile social fault lines.

Thread #2: Time to recover with loved ones

During Pres. Biden’s announcement of Griner’s release, he noted: “I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney is in good spirits.  She — she’s relieved to finally be heading home.  And the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma, and she deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”

I have no doubt that she needs and deserves space, privacy and time to recover and heal from the trauma of incarceration. In this matter, she is far from alone. Prison as currently instituted in both Russia and the U.S. is replete with human rights abuses.

The story of Greiner’s release made headlines on the same day as another prison story, one which received significantly less notice. Ray Garcia, former warden of FCI-Dublin, a federal prison in Oakland, CA, was convicted of eight counts of sexual abuse and lying to the FBI. The people he abused were incarcerated women over whom he exerted near-complete control. The prison was nicknamed ‘the rape club’ by both incarcerated women and people who worked there. An investigation by Associated Press journalists, Michael Balsamo and Michael R. Sisak, into the prison’s records found, “years of sexual misconduct by predatory employees and cover-ups that have largely kept the abuse out of the public eye.” The impact on the women was overwhelming: one woman considered suicide, another reported severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Many women who end up in prisons have previously experienced violent, sexual, emotional and/or mental abuse – to face it again when they are under the militarized control of men who run prisons is a terrifying form of violence.

When stories like this make headlines, they are often treated as anomalies or the bad behavior of particularly heinous individuals. Evidence suggests that we should not dismiss the level of threat faced by women inside prisons. A bi-partisan Congressional report published on December 13, 2022, found that women face sexual harassment and abuse at 2/3 of Federal Prisons.

State prisons hold even more people and follow the pattern. A recent example comes from Massachusetts, which boasts a relatively low (for U.S. standards) incarceration rate. Today, there are fewer than 200 women incarcerated in Massachusetts. But this does not mean policies of mass incarceration are better, it just means they impact a smaller number. Earlier this year, Prisons Legal Services, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of incarcerated people, published a report, “A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations.” It detailed abuse against women in Massachusetts’ prison. The report’s author, Sarah Nawab, interviewed 22 women and found:

With regard to violence and trauma, 19 women interviewed and six women surveyed reported that they had either experienced or witnessed sexual misconduct or harassment by correctional or other staff. Three women interviewed reported experiencing physical violence by prison staff, and two others reported that prison staff threatened them with physical violence. Transgender women incarcerated in men’s prisons reported sexual misconduct from both correctional staff and from incarcerated men. Eight women interviewed and five women surveyed reported that they had experienced physical and sexual violence prior to incarceration. Women also reported experiences and conditions in Massachusetts correctional facilities, in addition to sexual violence and harassment, that have exacerbated mental illness, and that mental health care is woefully inadequate to virtually nonexistent.

A Different Way Forward: Stories from Incarcerated Women in Massachusetts and Recommendations, p. 3

A Russian ‘penal colony’ conjures awful images. But we in the U.S. are not in a position to cast stones, here, too women face distinct threats within prisons. Prisons are highly masculinized, securitized, and hierarchical institutional which are foremost characterized by extreme power imbalances. Prisons are not set up to help people address trauma: neither that which they often experience before incarceration, nor that which they caused in harming others. More often than not, prisons produce new traumas.

The prisoner swap was significant because Griner was afforded special status as an American on foreign ground that she might have trouble invoking as only an American citizen.

Thread #3: Tales of the arms trade

It is much easier to find sympathy for Griner than for Bout. Upon return to Russia, he immediately expressed support for the Russian war in Ukraine and espoused virulent (and strange) anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Yet undoubtedly he, too, is recovering from his own experiences in the American prison system. Bout may not personally deserve much pity, but our prison system is cruel and dehumanizing, regardless of what one has done. While Bout should be held accountable, no one deserves the litany of additional punishments handed out in American carceral systems. Recall that he spent the pandemic inside an American federal prison system which has been rocked by COVID-19 infections and deaths: to date, 47,767 people incarcerated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons have tested positive and 309 died; over 14,000 staff have tested positive and 7 have died.

While he was tried and convicted for acts he had not yet committed (conspiracy charges), Bout spent a career supplying violent actors with weapons. Bout’s history of arming various sides of conflicts since the end of the Cold War led Tom Pasquarello, one of the DEA agents who conducted the sting operation that captured Bout, to express shock at the prisoner swap. Oblivious to the crash of domestic and foreign policy at play in this swap, which included the historical and laudatory precedent of an American President advocating for the release from prison of a Black woman on excessive drug charges, Pasquarello bemoaned: “we couldn’t even get two people for the world’s most notorious weapons trafficker.”

The story of how Bout became known as the ‘merchant of death’ – a moniker that that did almost as much to propel him into notoriety as did his own actions — is inseparable from the post-Cold War era. In 2003, Jonathon M. Winer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Law Enforcement in the Clinton administration, described the Yeltsin era in Russia as a chaotic free for all, a time when those who could exploit chaos stood to profit. Weapons stockpiles in many former Soviet states beckoned to those who might be willing to take some risks in the pursuit of profit. Ukraine, Winer noted, was a key source of weaponry: “The Ukrainian military was turned into a tool for revenue by a generation of politicians who took advantage of the factories and used them to manufacture and ship weapons for money to anyone who wanted them.” Bout founded a hub for his work in Odessa, Ukraine. He earned a name for his willingness to fly his fleet of Soviet-made planes where almost no one else would.

In a rationalization that still holds sway in the U.S. domestic small arms market, Bout once told journalist Peter Landesman, “Look, killing isn’t about weapons, it’s about the humans who use them.”

An irony of Bout’s career is that his services were at times sought by European countries and the U.S., as well as actors trying to circumvent UN sanctions. Among the conflicts that Bout allegedly flew weapons and other supplies into are: Afghanistan (supporting the Northern Alliance at a time when the U.S. supported mujahideen), Angola (supported both sides), Somalia (he flew Belgian troops in), D.R. Congo (flew French troops in), Rwanda (in 1998, with weapons that eventually made their way into war in Congo), and Sierra Leone (to forces supported by Liberia’s President Charles Taylor). An executive order under the Bush administration in the early 2000s co-named Bout and Leonid Minin – a Ukrainian arms dealer – calling them out for sanctions infringement in arming Taylor. Bout was roiled temporarily, until the weapons-dealing and conflict-transport smorgasbord that was the Iraq war broke out. Somehow Bout managed to get a Defense contract transporting supplies to U.S. troops.(1)

In the post-Cold War era, bi-polar divisions that defined arms trade partnerships broke down. In this period when ‘western’ states began to invest in peace mediation and conflict de-escalation, Bout stood out as a rogue actor.

As the topsy-turvy world of the end of Cold War gave way to the “war on terror,” the U.S. (particularly) began to clamp down on Bout and other rogue conflict-enablers. Leveraging its considerable power over financial flows, the U.S. was able to impose sanctions in ways few other countries could.

In a nod to the future that might have been, European countries, like France, and the UK elaborated ethical guidelines to govern sales to countries in conflict or with disastrous human rights records. The U.S. never went that far, Presidents retain almost complete authority to approve sales within the executive office, as researcher Jennifer Erickson notes.  Nonetheless, the U.S. articulated principles intended to inform Presidential decisions and gave Congress limited oversight of sales.

However, none of these standards or oversight mechanisms have teeth. Everyone sells to conflict zones.

Last year, we published, Business As Usual: How major weapons exporters arm the world’s conflicts” by Sam Perlo-Freeman (World Peace Foundation, March 3, 2021). The report comprehensively analyses the sales records of the top eleven major arms exporting states from 2009 – 2018, including, in descending order of share of the global market: the U.S., Russia, Germany, France, China, the UK, Spain, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, and Ukraine. Perlo-Freeman found that the business of selling weapons is rarely, if ever, impacted by the outbreak of armed conflict, massive repression, or widespread violations of international humanitarian law (see also our online interactive version of Perlo-Freeman’s data, ‘Who Arms War?’).

Today’s war in Ukraine provides an example. While many – myself included – believe that Ukrainian self-defense is a cause worth supporting, western countries ignored existing controls.  There was almost no discussion whatsoever of their commitments to prevent weapons transfers to conflict zones. No one even needed to argue that Ukraine was an exception; the controls never stopped weapons transfers in any case.

Thread #4: New arms races

Bout’s story of making the most of old weapon stockpiles by transporting them to new buyers has lessons for today. With weapons purchases at new heights today across Europe and military aid rushing into Ukraine, it is worth pausing. We should ensure that conflict does not ultimately empower the wrong actors or fuel the wrong conflicts. Many debates about western arms for Ukraine are too simplistic: support for Ukraine does not mean carte blanche. Ukraine can both be worthy of our support and we should be responsible in how we track where that support goes.

Arms trade analysts Elias Yousif and Rachel Stohl argue, “In that chaotic, and fraught context, the risk of diversion becomes more severe, especially given the volume of materiel making its way into Ukraine.  Even small leaks of an $18 billion enterprise could translate into significant risks, posing a security threat to Ukraine, the region, and beyond.” They continue, citing the long post-Cold War history of shady deals involving Ukrainian arms – many of which likely included transfer on Bout’s planes.

Tracking weapons to Ukraine began very late in the conflict, only amping up this Fall 2022, after months and billions of dollars (estimated $18 billion to date) in support had already flowed into the conflict zone. As recently reported by the Washington Post: “U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that have not been made public previously, said they are racing to deploy new means for tracking weapons seen as having a heightened risk of diversion…”.

The problem is not contained to Ukraine. Weapons sales are skyrocketing around the world right now. Russian aggression has spurred a European arms race.  In Asia, another arms race is also keeping pace as countries position themselves in relation to competition between China and the U.S.

Tracking weapons and financial flows into a conflict zone should be a basic measure: the risks of diversion are great during periods of upheaval and increased flows. U.S. support for Afghanistan’s mujahideen during the Soviet war is the exemplar case of how wrong this can go in terms of blowback.

Thread #5: Do these threads compose a larger tapestry?

During last week’s prisoner swap. Bout probably felt comfortable with the familiar feel of an airport tarmac under his feet, as he and a single American official approached Griner’s towering figure and several Russian handlers. The moment was rich in ironies:  both he and Griner were released from prison because of a deal between the world’s leading arms trader and incarcerator, the U.S., and Russia, the world’s leader in bringing war back to Europe. Griner will hopefully return to basketball – and one can only hope that Bout’s future employment is quite different from his past work.

Having tugged on several loose ends within this story, what are we left with? There are some common threads, but in such a short essay, they are thinly stretched, so I will tread lightly.

In the first instance, I am not fond of arguments that end at ‘we are just as bad as those we oppose.’ In the examples I’ve put forward above one could find elements of this argument. But exposure of double standards is not an end point. Ultimately, the takeaway should not an equivalence; it is a call to action.

The value of articulating ethical principles to govern public policy is they can and should be used to called out abrogations. Principles initiate and substantiate an agenda for change. A few are highlighted in this tale of a prisoner swap.

First, is the United States should end its reliance on mass incarceration. The U.S. government’s effort to bring home Brittany Griner was the correct policy choice, even while it drew into relief profound double standards within U.S. incarceration policies. There is much work needed to create more homecomings for our communities that are over-incarcerated and under-invested in.  This work is underway and often led by formerly incarcerated people, who insist that harms be responded to in a manner that affirms the core humanity of all those involved. Prisons are deeply militarized spaces, pockets of authoritarianism that exist to isolate and dehumanize in ways that have nothing to do with accountability.

Second, while Bout is an egregious actor, he was always a bit player in the global arms trade to conflict zones — a bottom feeder who sought profit from the residue of past major power arms races. We are currently in the midst of new arms races, and should consider how we resist falling into the same traps. At minimum, we should heed, our principles to limit the arms trade so that it does not fuel war, repression and corruption.

In both the realms of domestic and international policy, abuses of human rights and principle thrive when protected by the veil of ‘security.’ Security can be distorted to advance policies that lock up millions, notably minorities, in prisons. It can mean that the arms trade business is given a free pass, evading oversight. Once invoked, ‘security’ invariably enables a different sort of swap: democratic practices are traded for policies premised on use of force. Whether in the context of domestic or foreign policy, who draws this line, for what reasons, and to what ends should always be matters of intense debate and scrutiny .

End Notes

(1) For more details, read Nicholas Schmidle’s “Disarming Viktor Bout” in The New Yorker (August 27, 2014), or Peter Landesman’s “Arms and the Man” in The New York Times Magazine (2003).

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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