Chelsea Manning: The Latest Way U.S. Military Is Violating Her Rights

By threatening solitary confinement as a punishment for attempted suicide, United States Armed Forces could violate whistleblower's Eighth Amendment rights

Protestors with "Free Chelsea" signs during a June 2015 LGBT pride march in San Francisco. Credit: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst currently serving a 35-year sentence at the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas military prison for leaking government documents to Wikileaks, is facing disciplinary charges for resisting prison officials, possessing contraband, and engaging in threatening behavior. According to the ACLU, Manning has been informed the charges stem from her July 5th suicide attempt and could result in indefinite solitary confinement, an abusive punishment that would likely further endanger her mental state – and one that is rampantly used in the U.S.

Manning, who was known as Bradley before coming out as transgender in 2013, is no stranger to solitary confinement. In 2011, nearly 300 legal scholars published a statement describing the conditions of Manning's pre-trial detention as treatment that violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment's prohibition of punishment without a trial. Manning had been held in solitary confinement for nine months, even after the psychiatrist on staff had recommended she no longer be held in "prevention of injury conditions" – i.e., solitary confinement –  because she was not a danger to herself. She was not allowed to sleep during the day, and would be awoken by guards throughout the night if she so much as turned her head or covered it with a blanket. 

According to her attorney, Manning was forced to sleep naked and stand naked for inspection in front of her cell after making a sarcastic comment about harming herself with her boxer shorts. (She was then still living as a man.) Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's spokesperson P.J. Crowley resigned after publicly calling the conditions "ridiculous and stupid and counterproductive." Ultimately, the judge who sentenced Manning agreed the treatment had been excessive and reduced her solitary sentence by 112 days. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded Manning had been subjected to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" in violation of the Convention Against Torture. 

In addition to having endured solitary confinement – which is associated with self-mutilation, suicide attempts and other terrible mental health outcomes – Chelsea is a transgender woman in a male prison. The ACLU had to sue the Federal government on her behalf before the Army agreed to provide her hormone treatment for gender dysphoria that had been diagnosed when she was still on active duty. One of Manning's lawyers, Chase Strangio, suggested to the Guardian that she may be being targeted. "Chelsea has a growing voice in the public discussion," he said. "It would not surprise me were these charges connected to who she is.”

Fortunately, Manning has the benefit of excellent lawyers and massive public support. Last year, when she faced disciplinary charges for disrespecting staff, disorderly conduct, and possessing contraband that included reading material and expired toothpaste, advocates warned she could face indefinite solitary confinement. The civil liberties group Fight for the Future collected more than a hundred thousand signatures on her behalf. Manning was found guilty of the infractions at a hearing of the Discipline and Adjustment Board, but her punishment consisted of having her library and recreation privileges limited – not being stuck back in solitary.

It seems unlikely Manning will in fact end up in solitary confinement for the latest charges, given that they fall into the same categories of infraction seriousness as those she was found guilty of last year. Perhaps more importantly, she is a famous victim of what a military judge found to be excessive use of solitary confinement and has lawyers and supporters who provide a form of oversight even where disciplinary hearings are closed and she is not entitled to counsel. She may be being targeted unfairly, but she has more protection from the inappropriate or retaliatory use of solitary confinement than the typical prisoner in the U.S. enjoys.

Solitary confinement was intended to be preventative rather than punitive – to keep prisoners who are genuinely dangerous to others out of the general prison population, or to supervise prisoners on suicide watch for a few days while ensuring they can’t access anything with which to harm themselves. Few prisoners fit into those categories – but in the United States, approximately 80,000 prisoners are currently held in solitary confinement.

Manning remains at risk of being subjected to isolation because the arbitrary and routine use of solitary confinement, often for petty rule violations, is common. That is an atrocity. But in America, it's an everyday one.