Chelsea Manning is Free, But Transgender Women Are Still Tortured Behind Bars

Portrait by Alicia Neal, 2014

Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who as an Army private leaked classified information to Wikileaks, was released from a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on Wednesday. Her experience in prison was dehumanizing — like that of many transgender women who are incarcerated in the U.S.

During her seven-year imprisonment, Manning was placed in solitary confinement, attempted suicide twice, and was initially denied hormone therapy treatment. In 2011, she was stripped naked and left in her cell for seven hours. She went on a hunger strike last September over what she called “bullying” by U.S. authorities.

Josh Edelson / Stringer

President Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence as one of his final acts in the White House. The secrets that Manning exposed, including those about killings of civilians during the Iraq War and analysis of Guantánamo Bay detainees, helped people better understand the global war on terror.

“It is genuinely hard to overstate the significance of those revelations,” Glenn Greenwald wrote at the Intercept Wednesday.

But to many U.S. officials, Manning became a traitor who may have put her colleagues in danger by divulging sensitive information.

Greenwald wrote:

“In the wake of these disclosures, the U.S government — as it reflexively does — claimed that the release of the documents would endanger lives, and that those responsible for publishing the leaks had ‘blood on their hands.’ But subsequent investigations by AP and McClatchy found those accusations utterly unfounded, and ultimately, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates ridiculed the hysteria driving the government’s claims about the leak’s harms as ‘significantly overwrought.”

Manning’s endurance makes her a hero to many.

“When you consider the conditions she has lived under, between torture and her life’s uttermost intimacies being held up to the glaring lights of angry public scrutiny, Manning’s optimism seems almost superhuman,” Katherine Cross wrote in the Verge.

Her treatment in prison highlights one of the biggest systematic violations of human rights happening in the U.S. Dozens of lawsuits and reports allege mistreatment of transgender prisoners across the country. They describe lack of access to medical care, disproportionate use of solitary confinement, and brutal violence by prisoners and guards alike.

“The traumas of the past few years will not simply evaporate when she walks out of the prison,” Manning’s ACLU attorney, Chase Strangio, told the New York Times.

Ashley Diamond, who was incarcerated at a men’s prison in Georgia for burglary, won a lawsuit in 2015 and helped change state policy toward transgender inmates. Diamond had been denied hormone treatment therapy that she said she had taken for 17 years. The lawsuit describes her being raped by inmates at least seven times and referred to as a “he-she thing” by prison officials. For “pretending to be a woman,” Diamond was put in solitary confinement.

“I asked to serve my time safely and to be respected as a human being,” Diamond said after she was released. “Yeah, you can cut all my hair off, shave my eyebrows off. You can take away that care; that was very detrimental. My body was completely reversed. But that person is still here.”

After the settlement, the Georgia Department of Corrections made it easier for transgender inmates to access hormone therapy.

“Trans and gender nonconforming people are disproportionately punished in prison and isolation is a common form of punishment,” Alisha Williams, director of the Prisoner Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, told Alternet in 2014.

Yvette Gonzales, who pleaded guilty to a weapons possession charge, was placed in solitary confinement at a New York State prison, supposedly for her own protection. In total, she spent three years out of her seven-year sentence in isolation.

Sandy Brown is serving a five-year sentence in a Maryland state prison for assault. In her lawsuit against the state, she said she was called “it” and “some kind of animal” by guards who watched her shower. Authorities subjected her to 66 consecutive days of solitary confinement.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture has concluded that more than 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. (In 2012, the rapporteur found Manning’s long-term solitary confinement constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”)

In 2015, a judge in Maryland found that the way Brown was treated violated the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal statute put in place to protect prisoners’ rights.

Michelle Wright, an Oregon prisoner, attempted suicide after being threatened by prison staff. She requested hormones or other forms of treatment “close to 100 times,” according to an ACLU of Oregon federal lawsuit filed in 2016.

Shiloh Quine, the first inmate to receive state-funded gender reassignment surgery, was also transferred to an all-female prison through a settlement with the state of California in 2015.

“I’m feeling great,” she told the Transgender Law Center. “I’ll be around my peers. I think it will be a lot more comfortable, compared to being here [in a men’s facility, Mule Creek State Prison]. I don’t fit in here, or in any of these men’s facilities — I never have and never will. I just don’t fit in around a bunch of males — I need to be around people who are like me, and I’m like them.”

The federal government in 2012 issued regulations that require prisons and jails to consider gender identity in prison assignments on a case-by-case basis. Additional guidelines issued in 2016 prohibit correctional facilities from grouping inmates based solely on their anatomy at birth.

Some jurisdictions, including the cities of Denver, Colorado and Washington, D.C., have resolved to house inmates based on their gender identities. Some jails, including New York’s notorious Rikers Island, have opened housing units specifically for transgender inmates.

Chelsea Manning received a 35-year sentence, the longest ever imposed for a leak of U.S. government information. After her release, she will serve as an active duty soldier in the army. This places strict parameters on her freedom. She still needs to appeal her conviction — and she is subject to military rule, which restricts what she may do and even say.

“You would want to be careful in terms of what you want to write or say if you’re still under military control,” David Coombs, Manning’s military defense counsel, told NBC News. “Let’s say you write something critical, now you run the real chance of being called on the carpet for that.”

Through a GoFundMe page, supporters have raised at least $156,688 to help Manning get back on her feet.

“For the first time in her life, Chelsea will have the opportunity to live freely as her authentic self, to grow her hair, engage with her friends, and build her own networks of love and support,” Strangio, her attorney, wrote. “We want her to have the tools to do that and to overcome the years of abuse she has experienced in custody.”

Manning’s disclosures of state secrets had a huge impact on the global war on terror. So, too, her openness about what she endured in prison can help us understand what happens behind prison bars. Her bravery reminds us that there are other transgender women still suffering in prison today.

When Diamond, the Georgia prisoner, was released, she reflected on her own incarceration: “It was torture. I might be free now, but I am still struggling.”