Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, currently serving an extraordinary 35 year sentence in US prisons for violating the Espionage act, attempted suicide last week. The case illuminates the peculiarly punitive - and often outright transphobic - treatment that Manning has received in the six years since her first arrest in 2010 for leaking classified documents detailing American war crimes in Iraq to the Wikileaks website.
Last week, CNN reported that Manning had attempted suicide and was taken to a hospital “during the early hours of July 5” near the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Manning is being held. She remains under close observation by the prison, and will be for several weeks.
To many observers, it is unsurprising that Manning has attempted suicide. Her lawyers have made the cogent point that “no whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly.” It is arguable that she has been subjected to treatment amounting to psychological torture since her arrest six years ago.
Before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Manning was initially held in defacto solitary for most of a year in Quantico, Virginia while she awaited trial. During this time, Manning has claimed to have been stripped naked daily by guards and not given a sheet or pillow to sleep with. She said:
"The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."
This public exposure would have been embarrassing enough for any person - but more so for a pre-hormone transgender woman experiencing gender dysphoria with her body, a condition that the US Army was well aware at the time that Manning experienced. An investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture found that her treatment during this time constituted “cruel and inhumane treatment,” according to the Guardian.
Moreover, Manning has had to fight for several years for the right to gender transition, a fight that remains ongoing. In 2014, she sued the Army for the ability to follow female grooming standards (that is, growing her hair longer and being allowed to use cosmetics) and take hormone therapy - a move that was partially successful. Manning has been allowed to undergo hormone therapy, but remains unable to grow her hair beyond the uniform male standard of two inches.
Even more significantly, Manning is continuing to be held among male prisoners, putting her at significant risk of physical and sexual violence - violence against trans women prisoners held in male prisons is endemic. Trans activists have long campaigned for appropriate housing for transgender women in prison.
It is hard to imagine the kind of psychological pressure that Manning is under, as a transgender woman being held in a man’s prison, her body controlled and her identity constantly negated. To be treated like a man is a special kind of torment for transgender women, one that is enforced by institutions. Indeed, it is hard not to see her treatment over the last six years as a form of torture by the Army that specifically uses her transgender identity against her.
So though she has written positively about the effects of her new oestrogen and anti-androgen therapy, it is clear that Manning is struggling immensely with her imprisonment. Last Christmas, Manning wrote of the incredible isolation she feels in prison, saying “The chasm between me and the outside world feels like it’s getting wider and wider, and all I can do is let it happen. … I sometimes feel less than empty; I feel non-existent.”
Manning’s treatment at the hands of the Army extends even to the very news of her apparent suicide. Manning’s lawyers last week reported that the Army reported Manning's suicide attempt to the press without contacting her lawyers, breaching Ms. Manning's right to confidential medical treatment. In the end, it was over a week before her lawyers were able to talk to her to confirm her status, by which time the story had already made news worldwide.
Even now, Chelsea Manning is being punished in cruel and unusual ways for her role in exposing Army misconduct in Iraq. There is little hope for equitable treatment for Chelsea Manning, a woman who saw the brutality of the War on Terror and decided to do something about it - a decision she has been paying for ever since. On Tuesday, Ms. Manning tweeted:
We can only hope that she does.
If you're struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts and are in need of crisis support, contact Lifeline Australia, 13 11 14.