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On the anniversary of Brittney Griner’s release, Marc Fogel is 2 years into a 14-year prison sentence

In a Russian penal colony
Marc Fogel
Marc Fogel Submitted photo

On the anniversary of professional basketball player Brittney Griner’s release from a Russian prison, longtime teacher Marc Fogel, 62, remains detained in a maximum security penal colony about six hours away from Moscow.

He calls his mother, Malphine Fogel, 94, every Monday.

“Our conversations are listened to, so it’s not like I can ask him how he is, but he’s pretty emotional on the phone,” said his younger sister, Anne Fogel. “We talk about his sons and my children. We talk about safe topics. I can’t talk to him about the current efforts being made that we’re using. I can’t talk to anybody about that, actually.”

Anne Fogel, who resides in Montana, said the family is working privately with their legal team both in the U.S. and Russia.

“(Marc) feels very in the dark, and that’s the way it has to be,” she said.

Fogel, a Butler native, who had taught in international schools in several countries, had been a teacher for nearly 10 years at the Anglo-American School in Moscow before his arrest.

Fogel had been charged with “large-scale drugs smuggling” by crossing the Russian border, as well as “large-scale illegal storage of drugs without a commercial purpose” on a return trip after he was found carrying about half an ounce of medical marijuana at a Russian airport. The medical marijuana had been prescribed for chronic pain caused by a spinal injury. His prescription was in his luggage, his mother said.

The teacher, who has since served two years of his 14-year prison sentence, recently spent several weeks in a hospital, his mother said. She said her son was treated with injections and painkillers for his back.

Back in his prison cell, Fogel was glad to get back on his feet, she said.

“(Walking) is his main thing to keep limber,” she said.

The trouble, Malphine Fogel said, is that it’s very cold.

Pushing for change

Back in the United States, Fogel’s family hopes for a break in the case.

“We’re just hoping something happens and that we can call attention to his situation,” Malphine Fogel said.

Despite there being parallels between Griner’s case and Fogel’s, the teacher has still not been declared wrongfully detained.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. women’s national basketball team and professional basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women's National Basketball Association was designated as wrongfully detained by the U.S. State Department after her arrest by Russian authorities on Feb. 17, 2022, when she was found carrying vaporizer cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil.

Griner was initially sentenced to nine years on drug smuggling charges. After a nearly 10-month detainment, her release was secured last winter as part of a prisoner exchange.

Why her son was not also designated as wrongfully detained and released “is a big question mark,” Malphine Fogel said.

“Why and how (Griner) was released and not Marc, I don’t know,” she said. “It was like it was predestined to get her out. I don’t begrudge her that … I’m glad she got out. I just think Marc should have gotten the same attention.”

“This has nothing to do with marijuana at all at this point,” Anne Fogel said. “This just has to do with him being American.”

Malphine Fogel described her son as a “common, ordinary, good person” who made an impact on his students.

Since his detainment, friends and family of the Fogels have called, spoken with and written letters to legislators. They have held rallies and gathered for an art show. This holiday season, Fogel’s family called for Christmas cards to be sent to him via the U.S. embassy.

Family members, friends and colleagues of Marc Fogel rally for his release outside of the White House
Family members, friends and colleagues, center left, of Marc Fogel, who has been detained in Russia since August 2021, rally for his release outside of the White House on July 15 in Washington, D.C. Associated Press File Photo

In July, childhood friends, relatives, strangers and former students — some who had Fogel as a teacher in Europe — joined together in Washington, D.C., to rally for his release.

That same month, Pennsylvania elected officials and U.S. Reps. Mike Kelly, R-16th, and Chris Deluzio, D-17th; and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced a bipartisan resolution in both the House and Senate calling for his release.

In June, U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th, introduced legislation which would require more transparency from the U.S. Department of State on how wrongful detainment determinations are made. No action has been taken on the act since it was introduced in the House.

Fogel’s mother said she hoped she could get teachers in the U.S. to write first lady Jill Biden about the situation and get her attention.

Missing Christmas for a third year

Malphine Fogel said her son is visited in the penal colony by a Russian Orthodox priest who was able to get him books in English approved by the Russian government.

Fogel, who is Catholic and attended St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Butler, is able to walk to a building on the grounds of the penal colony that is used as a church, she said. Once a month, the church is visited by Orthodox clergy who hold services.

The first Christmas her brother spent detained in Russia was a “shell shock,” Anne Fogel said.

“The second year was depressing,” she said. “We’re all aging, but my mother’s very old, so it’s particularly hard for her. It’s brutal for Marc’s wife. Each day you feel like you’re failing.”

Anne Fogel said growing up, her brother “would always see the rosy side of everything.” She was very close with her brother, she said — the two didn’t miss a year visiting each other.

“I visited him oversees many, many times,” she said. “I just need to get him back.”

As her brother prepares to spend his third Christmas behind bars on the anniversary of Griner’s release, Anne Fogel said she doesn’t believe the law is being applied equally.

“Marc is a history teacher,” she said. “He’s not famous, but he’s played a role in thousands of lives of children around the world who have gone on to do amazing things. Some are diplomats, doctors, lawyers, professors. He is outstanding at what he does and (teaching) has always been his passion.”

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