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Being Chelsea Manning

After seven years of incarceration, the whistleblower is punished again — and again.
(Photo: 117549772@N02/Flickr)

(Photo: 117549772@N02/Flickr)

At the end of September, Chelsea Manning was finishing up a book on artificial intelligence and human life called Superintelligence, “because everyone’s talking about it,” she told me (via an intermediary, and confirmed by one of her attorneys). “I haven’t had time to read lately with everything I have been working on. It’s probably been about three-and-a-half weeks since I’ve been able to sit down and start reading a book.” She says she spends more time reading magazines, “both ‘high brow’ and ‘trashy.’”

“At moments, I’m reading The PrincetonCompanion to Mathematics, slowly,” she added. “It’s a little dry, but I’ve got time.”

On Tuesday, Manning was released from solitary confinement. After she had missed three previously scheduled phone calls, the Chelsea Manning Support Network tipped off the blog BoingBoing, which reported her missing. For seven days, she was out of communication. Today, one of her attorneys confirmed in a statement that she was in “disciplinary segregation” and had been until Tuesday afternoon.***

This was a punishment on top of a punishment: Manning has already been imprisoned for six years out of her 28, and the act for which she was sent to solitary was an attempt to end her own life.

Prior to serving seven days in solitary, Manning had just fought and won something big. To accomplish this, she used one thing she has of value as leverage: her time at Fort Leavenworth, serving out a 35-year sentence for disclosing military and diplomatic documents. She announced she would go on a hunger strike, demanding the gender-affirming surgery that her psychologist recommended back in April, and the freedom to wear her hair long, as she has sought since 2014.

But at the same time as the September hunger strike, Manning was also fighting new administrative charges from the military prison, related to the day in July when she attempted suicide. One of the charges came with the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement.

“A witness described, in breathless detail, how I was carried out of my cell. It was painful to listen to, on repeat. This went on for nearly 30 minutes. Finally, I couldn’t sit through it any more.”

Throughout her court martial, Manning was rendered nearly invisible and silent. Now serving her sentence, and speaking through her own writing and to the press, she faces ongoing threats of additional punishment. The Department of Defense had denied her access to hormone therapy for years, forcing her to have her hair cut every two weeks, and it also threatened her with solitary confinement over her books and magazines — which included among them a copy of the Vanity Fair featuring Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, and Casey Plett’s novel A Safe Girl to Love.

After five days (and international media attention), she ended her hunger strike, once the Department of Defense said it would move forward with her surgery. “To date, no transgender individual has received gender affirming surgical treatment in prison despite medical recommendations for such care in prisons across the country,” noted the American Civil Liberties Union. Manning’s win was both historic and a matter of survival.

Yet Manning still faced solitary confinement under the administrative charges, and as punishment for a suicide attempt. One of these charges involved possessing a book — this time, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman — which was allegedly “unmarked,” and therefore deemed “prohibited property,” according to the charge sheet Manning was given.

Before a prison disciplinary board this September, Manning had to make her case, alone. “She was not allowed to have counsel or any advocate present,” her attorney Chase Strangio from the American Civil Liberties Union, told me, “nor was she permitted to call outside witnesses like experts on mental health care. She was given a short time to review all of the evidence against her in advance of her hearing but not given an opportunity to make copies of the nearly 100 page record the Army put together.”

The Department of Defense has known that Manning was experiencing psychological distress — as a result of being denied the expression of her gender — at least since her court martial in 2013. Now, rather than offering her access to medical and mental health care that respects her gender, it appears that Manning is being punished for the consequences of that denial of care.

On June 30th, 2016, the Department of Defense acknowledged the right of transgender Americans to serve, and to serve in a military that recognizes their gender, recognitions that it had not made when Manning was enlisted. These are rights that should extend to military personnel who are imprisoned. On July 5th, 2016, Manning attempted to end her own life.

This process of punishing suicide isn’t unique to Manning. Many other people who are incarcerated are being put through this same ordeal. In her case, though, it is inseparable from the unique aspects of her life and her incarceration to this point. First, the intense government and media scrutiny she was under from her original trial. Second, the solitary she has already faced while imprisoned awaiting trial, and which the United Nations special rapporteur on torture condemned as “at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.”

Now, as many eyes are on her as have been since her court martial. And what began as a campaign to draw attention to Manning’s 35-year prison sentence for her disclosures concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has become, in addition, a campaign for Manning’s life.

The hearing on administrative charges began only a week and some days after she ended her hunger strike. “At one point, I had a panic attack,” Manning told me. “A witness described, in breathless detail, how I was carried out of my cell. The testimony was very detailed. It was painful to listen to, on repeat. This went on for nearly 30 minutes. Finally, I couldn’t sit through it any more. The hearing closed early and we broke for lunch.”*

In punishing Manning, the Department of Defense has also retraumatized her. It knows the magnitude of suicide in the military: According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, about 20 veterans committed suicide each day in 2014. Among many possible risk factors, involvement in military discipline is listed in the department’s 2013 clinical guidelines on suicide prevention. The guidelines advise, for those who have attempted to suicide, the formation of a safety plan “anticipating together likely triggers for future suicidal crises, and collaboratively planning coping strategies that make sense for a given patient.” None of this applies, seemingly, to how Manning has been treated in military prison.**

After the hearing resumed, Manning said, “I read a four and a half page statement at the end of the testimony. During the last three paragraphs, I choked up and I started crying, and it was hard to read anymore. After that, they deliberated for about a half an hour. I was very, very nervous. After deliberation, I re-entered the board room, and the findings and punishment were handed down. It was exactly what I expected. I felt dejected.”

In the best circumstances, Strangio told me, “administrative advocacy is challenging, but add the emotional consequences, the lack of support, the years she has spent fighting for basic dignity and her already unaddressed mental health needs — this has been unbearable.”

“Few trained lawyers could prepare for a hearing for a client under the circumstances Chelsea is forced to navigate,” Strangio continued, “but Chelsea has to prepare without that training and the facts relate to her own attempt to end her life. It is cruel and unrelenting and I can see the toll that it is taking on her.”

On October 4th, the board officially informed Manning that they were sentencing her to 14 days solitary confinement, seven of those days suspended. “The term for this status,” she wrote, “is ‘disciplinary segregation.’” She would have seven days in which to make an appeal.**

The military has already sentenced Manning to live much of her adult life in military prison. It is still pursuing more ways to make her disappear.**

*Update — October 12, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect an accurate timeline of events related to the hunger strike and administrative hearing

**Update—October 12, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect accurate statistics on veteran suicides. Some language has been modified or removed to clarify that Manning was officially notified of the prison board’s decision.

***Update — October 12, 2016: This post has been updated to reflect that BoingBoing reported Manning missing.