The XX Factor

Chelsea Manning Is Hunger Striking for Better Treatment in Prison

Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning has been kept in a male unit and forced to style her hair by male standards.

U.S. Army/Handout/Reuters

On Friday, Chelsea Manning announced that she’ll refuse food and all beverages except water until she is “shown dignity and respect as a human” in prison at Fort Leavenworth. Her statement, released through her representatives, includes multiple pleas for help and claims that she’s not getting the care she needs as a transgender woman in a male prison.

Manning’s hunger strike comes just a few months after a suicide attempt that could earn her indefinite solitary confinement for the remaining 29 years on her 35-year sentence. “I need help. I am not getting any,” she wrote in her announcement. “I have asked for help time and time again for six years and through five separate confinement locations. My request has only been ignored, delayed, mocked, given trinkets and lip service by the prison, the military, and this administration.” She continued:

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. … Today, I have decided that I am no longer going to be bullied by this prison—or by anyone within the U.S. government. I have asked for nothing but the dignity and respect—that I once actually believed would be provided for—afforded to any living human being. I do not believe that this should be dependent on any arbitrary factors—whether you are cisgender or transgender; service member or civilian, citizen or non-citizen. In response to virtually every request, I have been granted limited, if any, dignity and respect—just more pain and anguish.

The former military intelligence analyst, convicted on espionage charges in 2013 for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, was granted an official name change in 2014 and, after Manning filed a lawsuit, access to hormone therapy in 2015. But she’s still held in a men’s unit and required to cut her hair to “male length and grooming standards,” against the recommendation of her doctors.

Her statement includes no specific demands, but Fight for the Future, on whose Tumblr Manning released her message, reports that Manning will refuse to cut her hair or consume anything but water and prescribed medications until she receives “written assurances from the Army” that prison officials will comply with all of her doctors’ recommendations for gender dysphoria treatment. Fight for the Future also claims that Manning is demanding an end to what she calls “high tech bullying”— “the constant, deliberate and overzealous administrative scrutiny by prison and military officials”—directed at her.

Manning writes that her protest will be peaceful and she’ll abide by all prison rules outside the bounds of her protest. She is willing to die rather than live under her current conditions for the rest of her sentence: She writes that she’s filed a “do not resuscitate” letter and will peacefully resist attempts to shorten her hair or to force-feed her.

Keeping Manning in an all-male unit puts her at a high risk for abuse and exposes her to constant triggers for her gender dysphoria. Compared to the average incarcerated person, trans women in prison are more likely to be raped, sexually assaulted, and harassed by fellow inmates and guards. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that roughly one in three of the country’s transgender inmates report being sexually victimized during their time in jail or prison; because of the reporting gap in cases of prison rape, the actual proportion is thought to be much larger. By letting Manning get hormone treatment, but forcing her to keep a masculine haircut, the military and prison administration are willfully obstructing her transition and impairing her mental health. They seem to allow that she’s a woman in one sense, but refuse to place her in a unit with other women, effectively using her transgender identity as a punishment against her. If Manning perishes in protest, it will be the last of many abuses she’s suffered in military custody.