Say that an American gets imprisoned in a foreign country. The American government presses the foreign country's government to release them and comes to an agreement under which the latter will release the imprisoned American in exchange for the former releasing a prisoner of the foreign country.

However, the imprisoned American comes to know about those terms and strongly objects to them for some reason. Perhaps they had previously heard of the other foreign prisoner's case, perhaps they or someone they know have been personally affected by the foreign prisoner's actions, or perhaps they may be morally opposed to the idea of the U.S. releasing someone in exchange for their own release. In either case, the American prisoner would prefer they stay behind bars in the foreign country if releasing them would mean the release of the foreign prisoner and they prefer the other prisoner remain behind bars as well.

Can the American prisoner insist that the other prisoner not be released and that they're OK with staying imprisoned themselves? Will the American government honor the request and decline to release the foreign prisoner since the American prisoner objected to it?

As an example, say that in Brittney Griner's case, she had been closely following the news when Viktor Bout got convicted and jailed and strongly agreed with his prison sentence, or someone who purchased weapons from Bout went on to murder or injure someone close to her and so she's biased toward him remaining in prison. If she's OK with herself staying in the Russian penal colony if it means Bout will remain imprisoned, can she voice her objection, and will the American and Russian governments respect it?

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    Why would any government care what the prisoners think?
    – Greendrake
    Dec 9, 2022 at 6:23
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    @Greendrake The PR calculus is different if Griner doesn't think the deal is worth it.
    – Ryan_L
    Dec 9, 2022 at 6:51
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    Staying in a Russian penal colony seriously limits your avenues of voicing anything publicly. In case you are allowed to communicate with your government (publicly or directly), I doubt that government officials would just take your word for it because they can't assure that you haven't been put under pressure.
    – Roland
    Dec 9, 2022 at 6:58
  • The answer is mostly no. In rare cases, it depends on how much sway the person has over public opinion - a government that doesn't want to face public criticism might reconsider the swap.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 9, 2022 at 7:08

1 Answer 1


There's a lot of "people's motivation" elements to this question, which would normally put it out of bounds of Politics.SE; I'm going to elide past those elements and answer some of the practical elements.

First of all, prisoners, by definition, don't have a say as to whether or not they are detained. Outlaws can turn themselves in and become prisoners, but the moment someone is a prisoner they are no longer free to choose if they come or go (escape attempts notwithstanding). This includes having no say as to whether or not they're released. Either the cell door is locked, or it's not. Generally speaking, prisons don't like non-prisoners hanging around so they're usually quick to toss you out the door, if necessary.

Second, it is rare for prisoners to be allowed full access to things like news or communication with the outside world. Phone calls with family, the occasional overheard gossip from guards and whatnot is all going to be lagging behind actual events in motion. This makes it highly unlikely that the prisoner would know the actual terms of their release until after the deal was done - most frequently after they'd been recovered by whomever they were released to.

Third, the above goes two ways. Prisoners aren't generally offered platforms to make public statements unless their captor wants to make a show of their capture for reasons that we can assume will benefit the captor's agenda, rather than the prisoner's or the prisoner's home nation. If their captor is interested in the deal, they are powerfully incentivized to sequester the prisoner so that - even if they learned of the deal - they have no avenue to make objections known that might jeopardize the deal.

So regardless of whether or not the United States, for example, would honor a prisoner's request to remain a prisoner, there's first the issue of whether or not enough information could make a round trip in a timely manner such that a meaningful approximation of this condition arose in the first place.

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    Noncitizen prisoners have a right to talk to consular officials of their country, so no, it wouldn’t be that hard to make their desires known to their government.
    – cpast
    Dec 10, 2022 at 4:30
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    Usually prisoners are allowed access to lawyers who would inform them of whatever information they have about the deal. And the lawyers routinely speak to the media on behalf of their clients.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 10, 2022 at 8:41
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    It isn't always true that a prisoner can't refuse to be released. Very famous case in point: John McCain businessinsider.com/…
    – Alan
    Dec 11, 2022 at 3:35
  • @Alan I think that notable situation is worthy of being expanded into a supplemental answer post for more visibility, perhaps along with a reference to Fiorello La Guardia's de-emphasis of his imprisoned relatives
    – uhoh
    Dec 11, 2022 at 21:12

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