Prison is more than just a place, it’s also a mindset. When I entered IK-2, located in Mordovia, a region more than 300 miles east of Moscow, I flipped a switch in my head. I told myself I’m now an inmate. I’ll be here at least nine years. I even rehearsed my release date as October 20, 2031. I knew that might change but focusing on a goal would help me get through this nightmare. As deeply as I cared for my wife Relle and my family, I had to seal off that love to some extent, feeling softness would compromise my toughness.

Even before arriving, new inmates at IK-2 were initially isolated and tested for various infectious diseases, from tuberculosis to hepatitis B. That separation became more important with COVID-19, as overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and communal living ensured rapid spread. I recall spending only one week in quarantine with five other women. A pin on our uniforms displayed our names and one or more colors, from white and yellow to green and burgundy. The colors gave the guards insight into your story at a glance, such as being aggressive toward staff, suicidal, an arsonist, a swindler, a runaway, and so on. Mine was white, signaling drug-related charges. Around campus I’d spot the rainbow of colors, including black for the most heinous crimes like murder, terrorism, and torture.

I learned about the layout from Ann and Kate, the two inmates in IK-2 with the best English. Kate assisted the deputy warden, whom the inmates called Mother of Dragon, described as tall, wearing blue camo, around 60 years old, and breathing fire while waving her baton. Ann brought us cake that night as a perk of being the head cook. Kate gave me the lowdown, starting with rule one. “If a guard stops you,” Ann said, “you have to tell them your crime and release date.” She taught me every word of it in Russian. I practiced but never mastered it.

They also described the grounds and other rules. All prisoners were housed in multilevel buildings called detachments, like a quad. Each was overseen by the most senior inmate in the group. “No handcuffs here,” Ann said. The guards were watching but didn’t escort prisoners through the colony, which revolved around the Yard. On one side was the cafeteria where three daily meals were served: edible but still distasteful, aside from the honey cake I craved. Behind it was a church, a visitation room, an infirmary, and the market, which could all be visited at certain times on weekends. There was also an orphanage for the children of inmates who’d given birth while incarcerated, where they could keep their babies until the children turned 2. Out of view was the hole for troublemakers. “Don’t end up there,” Ann warned, describing stories of women who’d been beaten bloody and then left for weeks in solitary confinement.

Some requirements were like those I experienced in detention before being sentenced: 6:00 a.m. roll call, 10:00 p.m. lights out, tightly made beds. Three realities were new and awful. One was the bathroom. The second was my job. The third was my building leader. The stripe on her pin gave me chills.

For seven days I was totally off the grid. My team had been told I’d been detained but didn’t know when or where. “I have no idea where you are or if you’ll get this letter,” Relle wrote to me. “I’m in shock and disbelief. I wish none of this was happening. We will find you, Babe, I promise.” She’d heard the same stories I had of inmates crammed in dark and dingy train cars, rattling across Russia for sometimes months. Was I eating, sleeping or even still alive? My family didn’t know. On the eighth day, one of my lawyers, Maria, finally networked her way to someone who whispered my whereabouts and confirmed them in a letter saying “Yes, Brittney Yevette Griner is with us.”

Maria and my other lawyer Alex planned the long journey to see me while I moved into my quad. A short woman with black hair met me at the entrance. Through Ann, she introduced herself as Val, the building leader. Though she greeted me warmly, I knew she was trouble. Ann told me Val had once led a criminal organization, pointing out people to be assassinated. In the outside world that made her dangerous. In prison it earned her respect. She’d been at IK-2 since 2008 and was the warden’s right hand. Prison 101: stay away from inmates in the boss’s pocket. Val made that impossible. She tried to turn me into her bestie.

Our building had three levels. I was on the third. Each floor had 50 women, scattered among three massive bedrooms. My room had 20 inmates. When I entered, they all just stared. No one spoke English, and Val spoke very little. She shooed several women out of her way and directed me to my bed, next to hers.

The bathroom was a special hell. There was no hot water at IK-2. If you chose to shower—and most didn’t—you heated water in an electric kettle and poured it in your bucket. The shower was a tiny, tiled stall behind a folding screen. I was too big, so I squatted behind the screen, scooped water over my dreads, and tried to get clean. Meanwhile, the restroom buzzed as it was one big open area with four toilets facing each other and six sinks shared by all 50 of us. I saw a lot I didn’t want to see, and the room reeked, as did most of the women.

The guards allowed building leaders to do mostly as they wanted, so Val hogged the restroom for herself at 5:30, a half-hour before lights on. All others shoved in whenever, allowed 10 minutes max. A week in, Val began insisting I rise early and use the bathroom while she did. She also demanded that her main minion, a sweet woman named Sveta, heat my water for me. I didn’t want to become known as Val’s evil twin, but eventually gave in. I did my best to keep my distance otherwise.

No luck there, because Val was also my boss. We all had different shifts depending on our jobs, but Russian labor camps are called that for a reason. All inmates work 10-, 12-, or 15-hour-or-longer days. We earned a few rubles an hour, around 25¢. It was basically slave labor.

I worked in sewing, in a factory-like building with row after row of Soviet-era machines. There was no ventilation and little heat. No bathroom breaks. We knew to empty our bladders during the 20-minute lunch break. Each group was given a quota, around 500 military uniforms a day. Teams who failed were berated. A girl near me was sewing so fast she stitched together her fingers, which meant she bled onto the garment and slowed production. Her leader yanked the material from her hand, threw it on the floor, and screamed for her to pick it up and continue.

I was too tall to fit at the sewing machines, so Val made up a job for me: clipping threads from buttons using mini scissors, like the kind used to cut nose hairs. The buttons had been freshly sewn onto jackets made of stiff, waterproof material. Once I’d cut off stray threads, I used a damp sponge to wipe off the powder markings the sewers had used as guides then buttoned the jacket from top to bottom. The job sounds simple, but it wasn’t for me, and I had the bruised hands to prove it. The hardest part was standing hunched over a worktable for hours. My knees swelled; my back throbbed. That was my first job. My next would involve a whole new round of danger.

Evenings brought dinner, TV time in the common area, and calls from each floor’s phone room. Val ran that show too. Newcomers in our building got no calls their first year, simply because she said so. Even if she’d let me use the phone, I could’ve called home only with outside permission. I was surrounded by women, but I’d never felt more alone.

My lawyers came to visit about a week into my time at IK-2. I was overjoyed to see familiar faces and fought back tears when I saw them. Visitation took place in a small room. I had to get there early so I could be searched. After stripping to my boxers, I dressed and entered a room with a camera above. A guard stood nearby, monitoring our conversations. Alex had to hold up any letters to the divider and have me read them.