Brittney Griner’s former coach, local political expert weigh in on her release

Griner was released from a Russian prison on Thursday morning, nearly nine months after first being detained. Her former Houston-area high school coach said she was “ecstatic” at the news.


WNBA star and Houston native Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison in a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout on Thursday, to the delight of her former high school basketball coach.

Debbie Jackson told Houston Public Media on Thursday she found out early Thursday morning, and was “ecstatic” to discover that her former player had been freed.

“I have to say, I am an optimistic person by nature. And I never lost hope. But that nine years sentence, and then the day she was actually transported to the penal colony were kind of the low points,” Jackson said. “It was just … thinking about a person you love being in those conditions for possibly nine years was very, very difficult.”

Jackson was Griner’s coach at Nimitz High School, and said Griner began playing basketball in high school.

So to see somebody go from no knowledge, I mean, didn’t really even know the rules of the game to a superstar and somebody recognized,” she said. “But she she’s a person that never looked for fame. That was not her goal. She never was really comfortable with publicity. She just wanted to play play hard, play for her teammates, do the best she could.”

Jackson said that people might disagree with the prisoner swap, but “we’re not dealing with rational government that has the same values that we have.”

“It’s led by a dictator with no ethics,” she said.

Nancy Sims, a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Houston, spoke to Houston Matters on Thursday about the complicated nature of negotiations.

Bout was known by many as the Merchant of Death and one of the most notorious arms dealer in the world, and halfway through a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. after being found guilty of conspiring to kill Americans when he was swapped at an Abu Dhabi prison on Thursday.

“He was a much more notorious criminal than Brittney Griner is accused of being,” Sims said. “It’s a steep price to pay, but to get her home to her family and back in the U.S. it’s probably worth it.”

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan remains detained and the Biden administration says they are still working on his release.

Jackson said it was disappointing to see that Whelan was not able to come home.

“I’m so thankful Brittney’s home. I’m disappointed for Paul’s family and how crushing this must be for them, but negotiations like this, sometimes nothing occurs. Sometimes you can do something,” she said. “I’m just thankful for that this happened and praying for the release of all our wrongfully detained citizens.”

The Biden administration sought a deal that would include Whelan, but Sims pointed out that the charges against Whelan are different than those against Griner. Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in Russian prison.

The war in Ukraine has influenced the process, Sims said, and the bartering of the swap of prisoners was affected by it.

“It took the intervention of other countries to reach a deal,” she said.