Chelsea Manning could get indefinite solitary confinement after attempting suicide
It’s the little things keep Chelsea Manning going these days: the memories of a childhood cat named Belle, what pepperoni pizza tastes like, and walking around the mall window shopping with her friends back in Maryland. It makes her happy to think back to the day when, at age 12, she unexpectedly won a history and social studies challenge and returned home with trophy.
But the biggest thing that keeps her going, she said, is “talking to family and friends” and that’s what she could lose on Thursday when a disciplinary committee will decide whether Manning should be thrown into indefinite solitary confinement for charges related to a suicide attempt earlier this year.
Manning, who is serving a 35-year sentence at the US Army’s Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas, will have to defend herself at the hearing, and told VICE News she’s not feeling optimistic. “It doesn’t matter what I say or do,” she said, through an intermediary, as she’s not allowed to speak directly to the press. “The outcome is going to be the same.”
Feelings of “hopelessness and helplessness” are hard to shake, she says.
The hearing date has been looming over Manning, who has spent the last five years in prison for for leaking thousands of sensitive military documents to Wikileaks while working as an army intelligence analyst. Now she’s facing a host of new charges, all linked to her suicide attempt. Firstly, army policy prohibits inmates from resisting, impeding or interfering with officers who are deployed in the event that an inmate needs to be forcibly removed from their cell. The “force cell remove team” were called in after she was discovered unconscious in her unit.
The fact that Manning was unconscious – and therefore difficult to move – has been framed by the army as an act of resistance or interference, a Category IV or V offense, the same as extortion, tampering with locks, arson, or possession of drugs.
Finally, when prison officials searched Manning’s cell after she was removed, they discovered a book that didn’t have her name in it.
“After an inspection of your cell, you were found to be in possession of an unmarked book”, the charge sheet says.
In addition to solitary confinement, Manning could find herself with more time tacked on to her sentence. She feels like she’s about to ride into a losing battle.
Because it’s a disciplinary board hearing rather than a court hearing, Manning has to represent herself. Manning’s lawyer, Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that the board will likely be made up of officials from the prison. “Administrators who are overseeing the charges brought by their fellow administrators,” Strangio said. “It’s a one-sided investigation, led by people on their side.”
“It does seem needlessly cruel,” Strangio said. “It’s nothing but the continued exertion of power over vulnerable people.”
Manning was permitted to briefly review the evidence file before the hearing itself to prepare her arguments.
In a Guardian op-ed published Tuesday, Manning wrote that the evidence amounts to 100 pages, including a photograph of her taken after the attempted suicide. She told VICE News that other evidence or exhibits include “sworn statements taken by witnesses” and “reports by the investigators assigned to the case.”
Talking on the phone on Tuesday, Strangio said that the secretive nature of army court proceedings makes it difficult to establish whether or not Manning is being subjected to particularly harsh treatment. It’s also hard for Manning to prepare her arguments for the hearing because she can’t review the outcomes of similar cases.
Preparing for the hearing was “very emotional and traumatizing”, Manning’s support group said in a blog post on Wednesday. “It requires her to continually relive the painful experience over and over again.”
Manning has said that the deterioration of her psychological state which led her to consider suicide was triggered by the army’s inaction in responding to her doctor’s recommended treatment plan for her gender dysphoria. Manning came out as transgender one day after she was sentenced in 2013, and said she had identified more as female than male since childhood.
Doctor Randi Ettner, who has decades of experience researching and treating gender dysphoria, evaluated and diagnosed Manning. “It is my professional opinion that Ms. Manning’s gender dysphoria requires immediate treatment,” Ettner wrote in a sworn declaration two years ago. Ettner noted that, if left untreated, “individuals with gender dysphoria experience anxiety, depression, suicidality”, among other mental health issues.
“Were Ms. Manning’s gender dysphoria to be properly treated all of these symptoms would be attenuated or eliminated,” Ettner wrote.
As part of her recommended treatment plan, Ettner says that Manning should take hormone replacement therapy and be allowed to express her gender identity through wearing her hair long. Earlier this year, Ettner concluded that Manning should also undergo gender affirming surgery.
Manning has been taking hormones, but because she continues to be held in a men’s facility, she is mandated to wear her hair short in accordance with male grooming standards. Earlier this month, the army conceded to her doctor’s prescription of gender affirming surgery.
The slow response of the army to her doctor’s request was what exacerbated Manning’s feelings of hopelessness, Strangio, her lawyer, said, leading her to consider suicide.
The good news that she would receive the medical procedure she needs was overshadowed by the impending possibility of indefinite solitary confinement, Manning told VICE News last week.