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Solitary for Suicide Attempts: The Brutal Punishment of Chelsea Manning

Possible solitary punishment for a suicide attempt is likely to exacerbate mental health issues for Chelsea Manning.

(Photo: DieselDemon / Flickr)

On August 10, Army Secretary Eric Fanning received a petition with 115,000 signatures, part of an ongoing effort by activists to ensure Chelsea Manning’s additional suicide-related charges are dropped. Although public pressure has mounted, there has been no sign that the charges will be dropped any time soon.

Manning’s case has been fraught with government abuses of power, ranging from 1,000 days of detention without trial to denial of medical resources when dealing with gender dysphoria. Now, after a suicide attempt, Manning is facing potential conviction that would force her back into solitary confinement. This horribly inhumane treatment is used for many prisoners, particularly those seen as threatening to the state. But Manning hasn’t just been punished because of her charges; she has been denied basic resources necessary for dealing with the complexity of both gender dysphoria and the mental ramifications of solitary confinement.

In her personal account of her whistleblowing ordeal, Manning describes how releasing documents revealing “the deliberate diplomatic and economic exploitation of developing countries” would show the public elements of war that had so long been hidden from them. This case was deemed unconvincing by the US military: Manning was found guilty of five accounts of espionage and five of theft, and in August 2013, after a lengthy and abuse-ridden period of trial-less detention, was sentenced to 35 years.

The transparency sought by Manning was by no means desired by the US military. Before her 2013 trial, at the beginning of her detention, Manning was transferred to a large cage in a Kuwaiti prison camp, where she lived for several weeks with no access to legal representation, and no sense of which charges were being brought against her. Not knowing when she was leaving or whether she would be given a public trial, Manning tried to choke herself with a blanket and was placed on suicide watch.

Her three years of detention have only gotten worse as she has been subject to horrible strip searches, banned from having many routine items in her cell due to suicide watch, and denied access to the health care she needs as a transgender woman.

After coming out as a woman and requesting medically necessary support for gender transition — namely, estrogen and androgen blockers — Manning’s request for medical care was initially denied. Almost a year and a half after the initial request in 2013, Manning was allowed proper medical treatment to continue her transition. Nearly every element of Manning’s detention, trial and pursuit of medical treatment has been slow, with Manning kept in the dark for weeks or months at a time.

Then, the day after July 4, Manning attempted suicide again. The new charges being brought against her claim she engaged in “conduct which threatens” and resistance toward staff who entered her cell following her suicide attempt. This is bewildering, though, because ACLU attorney Chase Strangio claims Manning was unconscious following the attempt, and that she has no recollection of any altercation in her cell. It is impossible for the general public to know what specifically happened in the wake of Manning’s suicide attempt — and with only tenuous transparency, it is easy for the military to stack on additional potentially unjust charges against Manning.

ACLU attorneys stress that these charges could increase Manning’s 35-year sentence by nine years and deny her parole eligibility, as well as put her into indefinite solitary confinement. The horrors of solitary confinement hardly need to be enumerated. Any person with a sense of decency should be concerned by the way she and others in her situation have been deprived of basic human contact.

Penal Reform International estimates that around 80,000 individuals are being held in “some form of isolation” in the United States. Used as discipline, as a means of managing difficult or risky prisoners, or to coerce, solitary confinement is seen by many as a deprivation of the basic human rights that should be afforded to all — including prisoners. A 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health attempted to make sense of increased self-harm risks for those in solitary confinement, finding that prisoners “punished by solitary confinement were 6.9 times more likely to commit acts of self-harm.” Any reasonable observer would deduce, from these statistics and Manning’s personal account, that another nine years in solitary confinement will only exacerbate current suicidality.

Problems for transgender inmates seeking health care are not isolated to Manning alone. The case of Marius Manson, occurring simultaneously, has striking similarities to Manning’s, as Manson — a trans masculine environmental activist — began undergoing his gender change while serving time in a federal corrections facility. Although there is currently a federal policy on how to properly deal with gender dysphoria in inmates (including a requirement that prison personnel must use gender-affirming pronouns), prisons are often deliberately slow to adopt these practices. Manson, for example, began initial requests to undergo hormone treatment in 2013. These requests were only accepted recently after pressure from an independent expert review, making it a three-year process to gain necessary medical treatment. As long as prison administrators deny the immense challenges that come with gender dysphoria, acute mental health problems will continue to torment trans prisoners.

In Manning’s case, the criminal legal system seems most interested in making an example out of a powerful whistleblower who attempted to bring greater transparency to the way the US military wages war. In a larger sense, the use of solitary confinement to respond to suicide attempts illustrates the system’s insistence on punishment as the answer to any problem, particularly when it comes to the most marginalized people in prison.

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