Chelsea Manning and Other Trans Prisoners Face Exceptional Cruelty in Jail—Will Obama Do Anything?

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A petition from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to commute Chelsea Manning’s sentence is circling the Internet. The letter, which was co-signed by more than a dozen LGBT rights organizations, calls upon President Obama to grant leniency to the whistleblower, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act. In 2010, it was found that Manning, then a private first class in the military, leaked more than 100,000 classified government documents to Wikileaks. 

Anohni, the Oscar-nominated transgender singer who recorded 2016’s Hopelessness, added to the ACLU’s plea in a video entitled “Obama.” She writes in a heartfelt message, “If you leave Chelsea Manning in prison for whistleblowing, you send the final message to our nation that the Obama administration brutally punished moral courage in these unforgiving United States.”

You don’t have to agree with Anohni’s assertion to recognize that Manning’s punishment is immoral and unjust. 28-year-old Manning, who came out as trans in 2013, is being held in Fort Leavenworth, a men’s military prison. Her treatment is a reminder of the brutal conditions trans women face in the U.S. prison system, under which they are disproportionately subjected to solitary confinement and abuse at the hands of prison guards and other inmates, which can create an elevated risk for self-harm.

Whether Manning is a hero or a traitor is beside the point. Trans women deserve better than to be treated like animals in a system that robs them of even their basic humanity.

Manning, who was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in 2011, has served seven years of her sentence thus far. In that time, she has tried to kill herself twice. Following her first attempt in July, the military didn’t offer support or comfort. Instead, Manning was subjected to 14 days of solitary confinement under a provision known as “conduct which threatens,” arguing that her actions violated the “orderly running, safety, good order and discipline, or security.” She attempted to take her own life again in November. 

Following these incidents, Chase Strangio, Senior Counsel for the ACLU, has claimed that the "demoralizing and destabilizing assaults on her health and humanity” that Manning has been subjected to while in prison have negatively impacted her mental state. Further such treatment will continue to create an atmosphere that encourages self-harm.

In 2014, the ACLU had to sue the Department of Defense in order to get Manning access to affirming medical treatment for gender dysphoria, which the military has been slow to provide. Earlier this year, Manning further protested the armed forces’ refusal to allow her to surgically transition in prison with a five-day hunger strike, which was successful. Nonetheless, army documents still list Manning as a man, and the prison’s psychologist, Dr. Ellen Galloway, has fought changing her official gender marker in military records. 

That’s the situation that many transgender women find themselves in when sentenced to prison in the U.S., housed in facilities that misgender them and make them extraordinarily vulnerable to physical and sexual assault.

A 2007 study from the University of California Irvine that polled trans prisoners serving time in New York found that 59 percent of female respondents had been raped behind bars. That rate is more than 13 times higher than the rate of sexual assault for the general population. Research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the half of those assaults are perpetrated by prison guards or other on-duty staff.

Ashley Diamond filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2015, detailing the routine abuse she faced during the three years she served in Baldwin State Prison, a men’s prison located in Milledgeville, Ga. According to The New York Times, Diamond “survived an attempted rape in a stairwell, dealt with inmates exposing themselves and masturbating in front of her, and faced relentless sexual coercion.” Diamond further claims that she was raped seven times. She was released last year.

To keep trans prisoners from being victimized, solitary confinement is frequently used as a protective measure. But it often does more harm than good.

According to the a 2013 report from the Government Accounting Office, 7.1 percent of the general prison population is contained in Special Housing Units (SHU) at any given moment. LGBT prisoners are even more likely to be subjected to solitary confinement, which entails spending 23 hours a day in extremely cramped spaces, often as small as 45 to 128 square feet. In 2015, the prison rights organization Black and Pink found that 85 percent of LGBT inmates had been sentenced to the SHU at some point during their sentence.

Many have warned that the “hole,” as it’s often referred to, can have extremely harmful impacts on prisoners’ mental health. Stuart Grassian, a researcher at Washington University Journal of Law & Policy, found that a third of inmates housed in solitary were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.”

High rates of suicide attempts in prison have been particularly acute among the trans population in recent years. In the U.K., Vicky Thompson and Joanne Latham took their own lives within the same month, both of whom were held in men’s prisons. Just weeks before she was sentenced to Armley, located in Leeds, Thompson informed friends that she would commit suicide if she had to share a cell with men. On the morning of Nov. 13, 2013, the 21-year-old did exactly that. Her passing sparked a national conversation about humane treatment for trans prisoners.

America is long overdue for the same discussion. In the U.S., a majority of trans women in the system find themselves in a similar situation to Chelsea Manning— housed in a men’s prison, often without access to affirming healthcare. Just a handful of states, including Texas and California, provide hormone therapy for trans prisoners.

Obama can’t fix a broken system by himself, but helping to address the cruel, inhuman experiences of trans prisoners would be a much needed start.

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