Gus Kenworthy
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Chelsea Manning Faces Indefinite Solitary Confinement for Surviving Suicide Attempt

Pencil drawing of Chelsea Manning, a white transgender woman

The ongoing mistreatment of Chelsea Manning at the men's military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., took another terrifying turn this week.

According a press release from her attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union, Manning has been charged with several administrative violations related to her suicide attempt earlier this month. Manning described the new charges to her lawyers in a phone call Thursday, the release states.

Manning, 28, is the transgender woman and former Army private found guilty of leaking thousands of pages of classified government documents to the website Wikileaks in 2010. She was convicted under the Espionage Act in 2013 and sentenced to 35 years incarcerated with men at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Manning’s attorneys filed an appeal of that conviction in May

Details of Manning's suicide attempt have been difficult to obtain, even for her lawyers. After she was rushed to the hospital on the morning of July 5, her attorneys' requests to speak with her by phone were repeatedly denied, leaving her legal team unable to confirm whether Manning had harmed herself.

But that same day while Manning was reportedly still hospitalized, an unnamed Army official told a CNN reporter that Manning had tried to take her own life. Her attorneys at the ACLU denounced the leak as a violation of Manning's medical privacy.

In what Manning has been told is a response to her attempted suicide, she has been charged with "resisting the force cell move team," "possession of prohibited material," and "conduct that threatens," according to the ACLU.

According to a military prison manual, "resisting the force cell move team" involves a prisoner's refusal to follow the instructions of officials during a cell transfer. "Conduct that threatens" is a general charge that covers anything that interferes with "the orderly running, safety, good order and discipline" of the prison.

If convicted, Manning faces the possibility of being placed in solitary confinement indefinitely, transfer to maximum security facility, and could lose her opportunity for parole.

Although Manning came out as transgender shortly after her conviction (and was known to have struggled with gender identity for years before), she was denied medically necessary treatment for her gender dysphoria for more than two years after her conviction. She was not granted access to the treatment military doctors said she needed until her attorneys had exhausted every administrative avenue to protect their client and threatened a lawsuit against the U.S. Army.

Manning's legal team says that inhumane treatment has contributed to her mental health struggles leading to her suicide attempt. She continues to be housed in a men's prison, and while a federal judge ordered prison officials to recognize her by her legal name — Chelsea Elizabeth Manning — and refer to her as a woman, she has not been allowed to adopt the military's grooming standards for women.

This is not the first time Manning has faced indefinite solitary confinement for relatively minor offenses. Last year Manning was accused of brushing food onto the floor during meal time, disrespecting an officer, “medicine misuse” for possessing a tube of expired toothpaste, and possessing prohibited reading material, including the Vanity Fair issue featuring Caitlyn Jenner, copies of The Advocate and Out magazines, and several books by transgender writers. She was found guilty of four charges by an administrative hearing board and sentenced to three weeks of restrictions on recreational activities, barring her from the gym, library, or any time outdoors.

Medical research has made it very clear that untreated gender dysphoria is severely detrimental to the mental health of transgender people. For this reason, hormone therapy and other gender-affirming clinical treatment is understood to be medically necessary by most major medical organizations, depending on the individual seeking treatment. State and federal courts have repeatedly affirmed that prison officials are required to provide inmates with any medically necessary care.

In delaying Manning's access to hormone therapy for years and continuing to deny her the ability to express her gender identity, supporters contend that prison officials are neglecting their legal obligation to Manning, and placing her at significant risk of depression and suicide. "It is deeply troubling" that the military is now seeking to punish her for an attempt on her life, her attorneys said. Further, placing her in solitary confinement will likely only further erode her mental health and place her at even greater risk of suicide.

“While Chelsea is suffering the darkest depression she has experienced since her arrest, the government is taking actions to punish her for that pain,” said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project and a trans man who is a member of Manning’s legal team. “It is unconscionable and we hope that the investigation is immediately ended and that she is given the health care that she needs to recover.”

Manning has already suffered extensively at the hands of U.S. military officials since her 2010 arrest. While held in detention prior to her trial, she was placed in solitary confinement for 11 straight months, confined to a maximum-security cell for 23 hours a day. For the duration of that time, she was denied nearly all human contact, despite being accused of a nonviolent crime and being a model detainee with no administrative violations. At one juncture, she was improperly placed on suicide watch, and denied clothing until her lawyers intervened.

The conditions of her pre-trial confinement were so severe that they prompted an investigation from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, which concluded that Manning's extended period in solitary confinement amounted to "inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 16 of the convention against torture." A judge eventually ruled that Manning's treatment had been improper, and ordered that 112 days be removed from her sentence due to her mistreatment.

Unfortunately, suicide attempts in prison — particularly by transgender inmates who are housed with members of the opposite sex — are all too common. Strangio previously told The Advocate that incarcerated transgender people are particularly vulnerable to abuse that can severely impact their mental health. 

Ky Peterson, the black trans man at the center of The Advocate’s award-winning investigative series about his incarceration after he defended himself from a rapist, made an attempt on his own life after spending more than a week in “protective custody,” also known as solitary confinement.

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