Bradley Manning has announced that she wishes to be known as Chelsea Manning. But what are the issues with transgender prisoners?
Last week, US Army Private Bradley Manning formally announced her intention to live the rest of her life as a woman named Chelsea, requested that she be referred to using only female pronouns, and expressed her wish to begin hormone therapy. Coming out as transgender can be a courageous step for anyone to take, but particularly so for Manning, who has just been sentenced to 35 years imprisonment for leaking classified documents. Although Manning sees herself as a woman, the US military disputes this and Manning will therefore serve her sentence in a men’s prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Despite Private Manning’s dishonorable discharge, her sentence dictates that she remains a part of the military. Since the US military has been charged with Manning’s care for up to the next 35 years, it is legally obliged to ensure Manning’s safety, and to prevent her from being punished in ‘cruel and unusual’ ways. The US Department of Defense must face some tough decisions once Manning is diagnosed by an accredited doctor.
Officials often cite the protection of cisgender women inmates as the primary reason for why transgender women may not serve their sentences in women’s prisons. However, the US prison system is often accused of failing to protect transgender inmates at men’s facilities. One recent Californian study concluded that transgender women inmates in men’s prisons are thirteen times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault.
Manning’s case poses complicated questions for both the US military and prison systems. Whilst transgender inmates in men’s prisons are at serious risk of sexual assault, a women’s facility may not necessarily be a safer option. Furthermore, not all trans women would choose to be housed in a women’s prison rather than in a men’s facility. As Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, has previously stated:
“There are a lot of trans women who think they would prefer to be in a male cell, or male population, where they know that the other transgender women have traditionally been, where they may understand the culture a little bit better, where they’re not worried about how they’ll fit into a women’s prison.”
Precedents set in civilian court rulings mean that the withholding of hormone replacement therapy from Manning, alongside her incarceration in a men’s prison, would likely be deemed ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, which could in turn provoke legal action. However, according to US Department of Defense medical regulations, being ‘transsexual’ is an ‘unallowable medical condition’. Moreover, the 2011 repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ did not include transgender persons, and individuals with gender identity disorder will therefore no longer be allowed to serve.
Chelsea Manning’s future, like that of all transpeople in both the US military and justice system, remains uncertain. What does remain certain is that the methods of caring for transgender prisoners definitely need to be reviewed.