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?

177142283
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.”

Advertisement

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. 

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.