Chelsea Manning's Next Battle: Being A Trans Woman In An All-Male Prison

ByKatie Halper

Wednesday, in what the Center for Constitutional Rights attacked as "a travesty of justice" and "frontal assault on the First Amendment," "Bradley" Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail, for courageously exposing the criminal behavior of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that isn't the only injustice Manning faces.

Today, Thursday, Manning came out as Chelsea Manning, writing in a letter, "As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility)."

It is especially commendable and brave for Chelsea Manning to come out as transgender, given the brutal treatment of trans people in jails across the United States. For starters, it is unlikely that Manning will be able to receive hormonal therapy in jail. Although courts have ruled that denying medical care, including surgery, to transgender inmates is cruel and unusual punishment, Fort Leavenworth, the Kansas military prison where Manning will almost definitely serve her sentence, is immune to these legal precedents.

A spokeswoman for Fort Leavenworth explicitly stated that the treatment Manning would receive would be limited therapy and psychiatric treatment: "All inmates are considered soldiers and are treated as such with access to mental health professionals, including a psychiatrist, psychologist, social workers and behavioral science noncommissioned officers with experience in addressing the needs of military personnel in pre- and post-trial confinement ... The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder."

This can be extremely painful and uncomfortable. Lauren McNamara, a transgender woman who testified on Manning's behalf, says that the denial of hormone therapy is an"extraordinary problem ... I don't think people understand what hormone-replacement therapy does ... This is something that's the best anti-depressant, anti-anxiety drug I have ever been on. Denying people access to this treatment just because they're in prison is simply inhumane." McNamara asked, "Can you just imagine not giving someone, say, blood pressure drugs in prison when they needed them ... But because this has become some politicized notion of identity and choice and so on, and people act as though this were a controversial thing, rather than a medical condition, they think it's OK to deny people this."

According to Lambda Legal's deputy legal director Hayley Gorenberg, a number of transgender inmates have been killed when they are deprived of hormone therapy or surgery and attempt to castrate themselves.

The horrific treatment of trans prisoners is more than merely anecdotal. In general, trans prisoners who have not had genital surgery are housed according to their birth gender, regardless of the amount of time they have lived in the other gender or the amount of medical treatment they have undergone. This makes transgender inmates, especially ones who have transitioned or are transitioning from male to female, vulnerable to violence from fellow inmates and officers. Statistics are hard to come by and crimes are surely under-reported but the Department of Justice found that over a third of transgender prisoners have been sexually abused in jail. Other studies show that trans women are 13 times more likely than cis women to be sexually assaulted while in prison. And a study of the California prison system revealed that 59% of transgender women prisoners had been sexually assaulted in jail and 0% of them trusted prison officials to protect them. Christopher Daley, the director of the Transgender Law Center testified about the various forms of abuse transgender inmates undergo, ranging from rape, to harassment, to coercion, to being forced to dress certain ways. In addition to these abuses, trans inmates report being humiliated and even pimped out by their officers, as documented in a study released by The Sylvia Rivera Law Project. On an institutional and cultural level, prisons refuse to acknowledge the identity of the trans inmates. In many cases, according to Daley, prison guards refuse to call the inmates by the correct pronoun and tried to "correct" Daley, a civil right attorney, on what to call call his own clients.