Chelsea Manning Is Now the Most Famous Transgender Inmate in America. Will She Be Treated Humanely?

What Women Really Think
Aug. 22 2013 4:03 PM

Chelsea Manning Is Now the Most Famous Transgender Inmate in America. Will She Be Treated Humanely?

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Chelsea Manning will soon head to prison, a dangerous place for transgender inmates.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being convicted of leaking classified military documents to WikiLeaks. On Thursday, Manning publicly came out as a transgender woman. In a statement, Manning asked that “starting today, you refer to me by my new name”—Chelsea—“and use the feminine pronoun.” There is one exception: In “official mail to the confinement facility,” Chelsea Manning will still be “Bradley.” There, she will be “he.”

Manning is set to serve her sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. It is a male-only facility; female military prisoners are all housed at the Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar in San Diego. Though Manning and her lawyer have announced hopes to begin her physical transition while locked up, an Army spokesman said that hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery would not be available to her. Some jurisdictions across America now require facilities to provide hormone therapy to trans inmates as a part of their routine medical care, but Leavenworth is not currently compelled to do the same. It appears that Leavenworth's plan is to treat Chelsea Manning just like a man.

That's a problem for Manning, but it could end up being a problem for Leavenworth, too. As a trans woman living in a men’s prison, Manning will not only be denied hormone therapy. She will also face an elevated risk of harassment and sexual assault behind bars from both fellow inmates and members of staff. One 2006 study of California prisons found that trans women housed in men’s prisons are 13 times as likely to be sexually abused than other prisoners. That year, 59 percent of transgender women in the system were abused. And Just Detention International, an organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse behind bars, notes that once “targeted for abuse, the majority of transgender survivors are subjected to repeated sexual assaults.”

Over the past two decades, laws have emerged that put the onus on detention facilities to prevent these assaults. After a trans woman named Dee Farmer was repeatedly raped and beaten in an all-male Indiana prison, she took her case all the way to the Supreme Court; the 1994 decision in Farmer v. Brennan found that the government’s “deliberate indifference” to the sexual assault of inmates under its care was unconstitutional. Now, detention facilities (including military ones) must follow special policies to protect inmates like her. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Though real-world implementation of the PREA standards has been slow-moving, the act ostensibly requires facilities to—among other things—take extra care in assigning housing to transgender inmates to reduce their risk of assault. That often means respecting the prisoner's stated gender identity. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, housing decisions “must be made on a case-by-case basis” and “cannot be made solely on the basis of a person’s anatomy or gender assigned at birth.” The transgender inmate’s “views regarding their personal safety must be seriously considered,” as well, and the “decisions must be reassessed at least twice per year.” Simply placing the at-risk inmate in solitary confinement to sidestep the gender issue is not an acceptable option.

It's unclear how Leavenworth will ultimately deal with Manning's gender identity; she came out publicly just today. Whatever the facility does, we will hear about it, because Chelsea Manning is now the most famous transgender prisoner in America. Her lawyer has pledged to fight to ensure she's treated humanely in prison. Here's to hoping that her example—and her legal team—will help shine a spotlight on the challenges faced by trans inmates across the country, too.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. Email her at amanda.hess@slate.com, or follow her on Twitter.