On Wednesday, NBC News reported that President Obama had placed Chelsea Manning on a “short list” of individuals to whom he is considering granting clemency.
Sentenced to serve 35 years in prison for disclosing information to the news media in 2010, Chelsea has spent almost seven years in custody — a term of incarceration already longer than any individual has ever served for comparable charges in United States history. Now, without action by President Obama before he leaves office and with nearly three decades left on her sentence, Chelsea is unlikely to survive to see her freedom.
In the past six months alone, Chelsea has twice attempted suicide. After she first tried to end her life in July of last year, the military responded by bringing administrative charges against her for attempting suicide and then unexpectedly throwing her into solitary confinement before she was able to appeal those charges. A particularly cruel response to her despair, the punishment destabilized her just as she was beginning to recover. In solitary, she attempted suicide a second time.
Thankfully, when I visited Chelsea in November, she was feeling better. She characteristically was more concerned about me than she was about herself. Though we had a limited amount of time for our legal visit, she filled the first hour with questions about my family, my work and my plans for the holidays. As journalist Glenn Greenwald explained of Chelsea, “not only [is she] an incredibly insightful person but also an incredibly kind and selfless one. Remarkably, the difficulty of her ordeal over the last several years has only strengthened her character.”
During that November visit, she made me laugh and gave me hope even as we shared our post-election fears and nightmares. It was a rejuvenating visit but as always, I worried that our time together would be our last.
I have known and represented Chelsea as her attorney for three years. I have grieved losses with her and celebrated wins. I have seen her at her most hopeful and heard her at her most desperate. One of the most resilient and strongest people I have ever known, Chelsea is still human, still vulnerable. She can only survive so much and, at 29 years old, she has already endured more than one should be expected to encounter in 30 lifetimes.
From the brutal conditions of solitary confinement she faced at Quantico before her trial to the ongoing denial of her health care, Chelsea’s incarceration has been marked by mistreatment and abuse. As she explained in September when she began a hunger strike to receive better treatment: “I need help. I needed help earlier this year. I was driven to suicide by the lack of care for my gender dysphoria that I have been desperate for. I didn’t get any. I still haven’t gotten any.” Indeed, she has been asking for help for so much longer that. Before her arrest almost seven years ago, she sent an email to Master Sergeant Paul Adkins, who was in her chain of command, with that now famous, grainy black and white photo of herself, saying of her female identity: “I thought a career in the military would get rid of it … But, it’s not going away, its haunting me more and more as I get older. Now, the consequences of it are dire, at a time when it’s causing me great pain in itself.”
Like so many trans people, Chelsea has had to fight both her inner demons and an unforgiving and unaccepting world just to be herself. She has survived homelessness; abuse; “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; the ban on open transgender service and almost seven years in military prison.
Though the military has made assurances that her medical treatment will continue to progress, with a new administration coming to power, everything is in jeopardy. Her life is in jeopardy. And President Obama has one week to save her.
With news that he is seriously considering her application for clemency, Chelsea and those who love her can’t help but feel a glimmer of hope. And now, if no action is taken and Chelsea is condemned yet again to this relentless nightmare, it will be so much worse because hope was let in for this short, fleeting, time.
I cannot fathom the loneliness and despair that she could feel if January 20 comes and all Chelsea has before her are 30 more years in prison.
“Leavenworth, Kansas, is hauntingly beautiful,” I observed after one visit last August. “But behind the corn fields and train tracks sit our most effective mechanisms of death. Our captives can’t take in that beauty and are instead served only rules designed to break them.”
Sometimes we explicitly sentence people to death. Other times we merely passively accept a death sentence — by suicide; by abuse; by the slow, administrative neglect of our carceral systems. As many of us fear what the coming days and years will bring, many more have always known fear. The fear of criminal legal systems descended from chattel slavery, designed to maintain and ensure white supremacy and ever growing to carry out that aim. These systems lock away so many beautiful souls who have friends and loved ones and whole communities clawing at the walls to set them free.
In the coming week before he leaves office, President Obama is expected to use his presidential power to grant commutations and pardons — to set people free and restore their rights. He has the power to save lives with the stroke of a pen. He has the power to condemn to death with inaction. On his desk sit the stories, dreams and futures of so many beloved siblings and parents and grandparents and friends and spouses and heroes. The people we lock away are not monsters. They are human beings and they deserve a chance to be free.
By this time next week, we will be ushering in a new paradigm.
As scary as the future is for me, I cannot fathom how scary it feels to Chelsea.
For now, I just pray that President Obama saves her life. He is likely the only one who can.
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