Tag Archives: chelsea manning

A Lawyer for Chelsea Manning Explains What’s Next After Her Life-Saving Commutation

What would have happened to Chelsea Manning had President Obama not commuted her 35-year prison sentence to time served last Tuesday? Thankfully, we'll never know—but it's more than likely things wouldn't have gotten better under the Trump administration.

While Manning did see victories in her battle to seek treatment for gender dysphoria while incarcerated, it's unmistakable that the Army's treatment of her has been incredibly cruel throughout her incarceration. To seek the life-saving hormone therapy she needed, she had to fight tooth and nail; last year, she was sentenced to solitary confinement as a punishment for attempting suicide, which caused her to attempt suicide once more; this year, the Army continued to deny permission for her to grow her hair past male military grooming standards. Enduring seven years of that nearly left her dead; it's hard to imagine what seven more, no less the 28 years of her sentence that remained, would have done for her emotional and mental state.

As an ACLU attorney working to defend Manning's right to treatment for gender dysphoria, Chase Strangio has been instrumental over the past several years in both promoting awareness of the cruelties Manning has experienced and helping her to secure her legal rights. Last Tuesday's news was monumental for hundreds of thousands, and it was no doubt especially monumental to Strangio, who has been at the forefront of the fight to secure Manning's freedom. He spoke with VICE in the days following the commutation news about what it means to him, to her, for those she's inspired, and what's next.

VICE: Can you speak to the treatment Chelsea has received over the past seven years, what this means for her and her life, and what's next?
Chase Strangio: It's been a really horrible and harsh seven years for Chelsea, and I will say that she handles the many difficulties she's faced with unbelievable grace, far more than I would. But right before her arrest in 2010, she was struggling with gender dysphoria, she was serving in a war zone and confronted with the atrocities of war, then immediately put into solitary confinement in a cage in Kuwait, and those conditions were replicated in many ways for months at Quantico. Especially coming out of an incredibly painful and traumatic deployment, those stretches of solitary were very destabilizing for her, as they would be for any human being. Solitary confinement is a gruesome and torturous practice that people from the international human rights community to the medical community to the president himself have recognized as anywhere from torture to illegal to impermissible. Those conditions certainly have had a lasting effect on Chelsea's health and wellbeing, as they have for so many.

During her court martial, she made a decision to not come out as transgender. But the day after her sentencing, she made clear that she would begin to live publicly as a woman and seek treatment during her incarceration. And from thereon the military's immediate response was that they absolutely, categorically do not provide this treatment. It was stunning, since that is a plainly unconstitutional position to take, which we knew well, and so then the ACLU and I became involved. The ACLU had been involved in other capacities before that, on the whistleblower aspects and about the treatment she experienced at Quantico, and then I became involved around access to treatment for gender dysphoria.

Chelsea was characteristically optimistic that the military would do the right thing. You know, for someone who has endured atrocious treatment by the American government, she has an enduring faith in our democratic principles. She believed that the military would treat her, she made every formal request imaginable, and every single request was denied or ignored, so we ultimately filed suit against the Department of Defense. We were able to get her hormone therapy and access to cosmetics—but the government really fought to restrict her ability to grow her hair, not just by denying her request but by aggressively litigating against that claim, in ways that were inconsistent with positions the Obama administration took with respect to trans rights elsewhere.

One of the most emotional things for me to think about is that Chelsea's going to be able to leave prison in four months, grow out her hair, and express her gender on her own terms, after a decade of having every aspect of her bodily autonomy controlled by the government. It's really incredible to think about that, and how life-affirming that will be.

Portrait of Chase Stangio by Leah James

You've written about the ways Chelsea has often been made out to be a symbol, rather than a person. Can you expand on that?
One of the general realities of incarceration is the way we dehumanize those we cage and lock away. We do that in a number of ways—by literally removing people from society, but in other administrative and emotional ways, too, by restricting people's access to communication, to touch and intimacy—and that makes it much harder to perceive them as human beings. Which is, of course, the precise purpose of our punitive incarceration machine.

For Chelsea in particular, the government was very invested in taking away her voice and making her a symbol and an example to justify its incredibly cruel treatment of her. As advocates working with her, one challenge was finding ways to help her tell her story on her own terms, and be experienced as a human being by the public. Even listening to reactions from the media last week, nobody has any idea who she is, and most, frankly, have no idea what her case is about. They think she's a traitor, because that's what's being told to them, but she's this compassionate, patriotic person who joined the military in part because she was poor and had no money to pay for college, and in part because she has this deep sense of patriotism, and wanted to serve her country in the aftermath of 9/11. During that time, she experienced homelessness and all sorts of discrimination as a young queer person, she served in the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell and the ban on open trans service. These are things about her that so few people realize or know—her motivations for service, her dedication to country, and the systemic discrimination she experienced as a low-income queer and trans person.

During these last three years, she has been able to write some and share her story, and we were able to help her with her Twitter account and things like that. But she hasn't been seen, you know? In so many ways—not just visually.

I'm sure things are going to want to calm down a little after she's released, but what are the next steps for you? And I'm sure at some point she's going to put herself out there, when she's ready—I'm wondering what that vague future is going to look like?
When we began to have more concrete talks about the future, when it seemed like commutation was a possibility, as cautious as those conversations were, two things emerged. The first is that transitioning out of incarceration is an incredibly complicated emotional and physical process—at least, I can only imagine. And Chelsea understands that she's going to need to care for herself in a variety of ways, and hopefully those of us who are close to her can help her get the tools and resources she'll need for that. Wherever we are as human beings, we create survival and defense mechanisms to help us cope with our surroundings, and no doubt those are heightened and made more complex in the various institutional settings she's been part of, from the military to the various sites of confinement where she's been held. So there will be a process of making sure she can be safe and healthy and get access to the care that's been deprived from her for a while.

Second, she feels an incredible sense of responsibility and commitment to the trans community; she is inherently, will always be and always want to be an advocate, and is looking forward to engaging in these conversations and fights from outside of prison, and really just participating in the fights ahead for the trans community, of which there will no doubt be many. I think she'll definitely keep up that work, and I really look forward to watching her grow and learning from her as we move into this next stage. I've been really inspired by working with her for the past three and a half years, and just know that we'll all have so much to learn from her as she continues to develop in the free world.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Obama Was the Most Pro-Trans President in History

On Tuesday afternoon, the Obama administration announced that the president was commuting Chelsea Manning's sentence to time served. After seven years of brutal imprisonment, in which the Army only allowed the transgender inmate to better align her appearance with her gender identity after lawsuits and a hunger strike, she will finally be free in May.

Though it is impossible to know President Barack Obama's true reasons for granting her commutation, the decision cements his and his administration's legacy as an unlikely champion for the rights of transgender Americans. It's hard to forget that Obama failed to support marriage equality during his 2008 campaign (what some say was a calculated political maneuver). But while his "evolution" on that issue synched up with an increasingly tolerant view of gays and lesbians among the American people, few expected his administration to institute an even more aggressive platform for transgender rights later in his presidency.

The first—and perhaps most significant—pro-trans policy put into place by the Obama administration came in 2010, when the State Department changed their rules about changing one's gender marker on US passports. Previously, genital reassignment surgery was required in order to make that change, but new language on the rule eased that restriction, simply stating that a doctor's letter alleging one had undergone "appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition" was now necessary. This opened the door for thousands of trans people to obtain proper legal identification that represented their gender identity, even in states with more restrictive gender change rules.

While Time  may have declared 2014 to be the "transgender tipping point," it's really taken until the last year for trans rights to come into sharp political debate. In his 2015 State of the Union address, Obama became the first president ever to mention transgender people, a milestone that represented the beginning of what's become a far-reaching legal and political fight.

For example, the American healthcare system is often a nightmare for trans people seeking the medical treatment they need; in the 2015 US Transgender Survey, a national poll of transgender Americans conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, one in four respondents reported being denied hormone replacement therapy by their insurance providers while 55 percent were denied coverage for transition-related surgery.

In response to such rampant discrimination, the Department of Health and Human Services finalized wording on the Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities section of the Affordable Care Act in May, banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity. As a result, insurance companies are now unable to deny coverage to trans beneficiaries—for example, as a trans woman, my insurance provider can't stop me from seeking a prostate exam on the basis that I am a woman. Previously, they would have been allowed to decide they weren't required to cover the exam, because women don't have prostates. A federal judge issued an injunction against the regulation on New Year's Eve, a move that's now being appealed. (In all likelihood, such insidious attempts to discriminate against transgender Americans will only ramp up under Donald Trump.)

Genital reassignment surgery has been covered under Medicare since 2014—a decision that amplified access to such surgery across the board, because many private insurers model their coverage after Medicare standards. Simultaneously, that coverage expands the marketplace for such surgery, increasing the need for surgeons and facilities offering these lifesaving operations.

But despite all this progress, the past year has marked a bitter political fight for the rights of transgender Americans; in 2015 and 2016, right-wing politicians put forth "bathroom bills" in over 23 states nationwide. The bills have found little legislative traction thus far, with the very notable exception of North Carolina's HB2. The Department of Justice filed suit in response, taking the state of North Carolina to court over the law; that lawsuit is currently pending, but Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a moving speech in defense of the rights of transgender Americans in May, an unforgettable moment for those who lobby on behalf of their community.

There have been other reasons for hope. Obama himself appointed the first trans White House LGBT Liason last March, and in May, the Department of Education issued non-binding guidance for the accommodation of trans schoolchildren.

Throughout this, Chelsea Manning was always the thorn stuck in Obama's side. Every time this administration forged a new victory for trans Americans, Manning's name would inevitably come up as a sticking point; her sentence was outlandish relative to the crime committed, and her treatment at Fort Leavenworth was especially cruel. Not only was she housed in a men's prison, but she was forced to fight fierce legal battles throughout her seven years of time served to earn the right to express her gender. She was made to follow male military grooming standards and denied permission to grow out her hair, denied transition healthcare, and held in solitary confinement for attempting suicide as a result (a practice the UN classifies as torture). She became America's highest-profile transgender inmate, and her treatment was a perfect example of the ways the US prison system abuses trans inmates. While the progressive victories for trans rights made by Obama's administration are highly commendable, the treatment of Manning stood in stark contrast.

One can only hope that future reforms will prevent such cruel treatment of incarcerated trans people, but that's putting a lot of faith in the new Republican administration. What is more likely, is that trans people are about to play legal and political defense for many years to come.

There remain many legitimate criticisms for how Obama's administration has handled trans rights. Obama himself famously dismissed a Latina trans woman protester from a White House press event who was calling attention to the practice of deporting undocumented trans people back to hostile foreign countries. It's also important to note that the progress made under Obama has come in the form of executive action, which Trump can now undo, rather than laws passed by Congress. If Obama had made trans rights a priority before the Democrats lost their control of Congress in 2010, maybe trans-friendly legislation could have been enacted. Instead, beginning next week, Obama's entire trans legacy is now under threat of vanishing.

While Obama may have been the first presidential champion of trans rights, his legacy on these issues, like the rest of his accomplishments, may soon be wiped out. At least we'll always have Chelsea. I hope she has a long and happy life as a free woman ahead.

Follow Katelyn Burns on Twitter.

For Trans Prisoners, Access to Healthcare Remains Abysmal

Ky Peterson has been waiting to hear back about his parole request for nearly three months. Peterson—a black transgender man who is serving a 20-year sentence in a women's prison for involuntary manslaughter after killing his rapist, which he alleges he did in self-defense—submitted his request in October, along with a post-incarceration plan. According to Pinky Shear, an Atlanta-based community advocate and Ky's partner of three years, it was "extensive." It included medical and financial planning, letters from supporters, proof of housing, a job offer, a plan for continuing education, and a letter from Ky himself detailing all that he accomplished while incarcerated. Despite its thorough nature, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles has yet to render a decision—one that his supporters expected to be delivered by early December at the latest.

In the meantime, Peterson is pushing forward with a different kind of request: top surgery, a procedure involving breast reduction and chest reconstruction that more than one third of all trans men pursue, according to a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), one of the nation's leading trans rights advocacy groups. If successful, Ky would become the second trans inmate in the country to receive state-funded gender confirmation surgery while incarcerated, following Shiloh Quine in California earlier this month, and he would set a statewide precedent in Georgia for those who follow. "He's determined to continue to push forward and keep fighting for trans rights in this facility," said Shear.

One could argue that Peterson's case highlights just how much incarcerated trans people's access to gender-affirming medical care has improved over the past few years. At the same time, it underscores how limited that access remains.

Trans people are subject to disproportionate levels of violence and discrimination while they are incarcerated, just as they are in the outside world. The experience of Chelsea Manning provides a notable (if not wholly representative) example—the military whistleblower, whose 35-year prison sentence was commuted by President Obama on Tuesday, has frequently been held in solitary confinement throughout her sentence. While she was allowed to wear gender-affirming clothing and cosmetics and seek speech and hormone therapy, prison officials forced her to adhere to keep her hair short as a security measure. Despite being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2010 and coming out as a transgender woman in 2013, Manning has had to take extreme measures—lawsuits, hunger strikes—in order to have her medical needs recognized.

More than a third of incarcerated trans adults report being sexually victimized by staff and other inmates, according to the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 85 percent of queer and trans inmates surveyed in 2015 by the LGBTQ prisoner support network Black and Pink said they have been held in solitary confinement. Trans women—particularly Black, Latinx, multiracial, and Indigenous trans women—were one of the most at-risk groups for "protective" solitary confinement, a measure that has been linked to increases in suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among prisoners.

Attempts to access gender-affirming medical care while incarcerated often leads to difficulties for trans people. And trans inmates are far from the only incarcerated people who are systematically denied access to adequate medical care. Health care access is "abysmal" for all American prisoners, said Jason Lydon, the National Director of Black and Pink. That said, "transgender and gender-nonconforming folks experience greater inequities in all aspects of incarceration," he noted, "and that is true with respect to health care."

The 2015 NCTE survey found that nearly one in four trans people undergoing HRT prior to incarceration were denied access to hormones while in prison. While the survey did not ask respondents to specify whether hormones were withheld as punishment, Lydon said that such measures are not unheard of.

Gender-affirming care is often denied as a result of inexperience with caring for trans patients on the part of prison medical staff; for example, an incarcerated trans person who wishes to receive gender-affirming health care might first need to obtain a psychological evaluation in order to get diagnosed with gender dysphoria. The request process is often "really long" and "unnecessarily bureaucratic," according to Pooja Gehi, the Executive Director of progressive legal advocacy group the National Lawyers Guild, and it inherently privileges the will of the prison staff over the needs of the incarcerated. 

Even with an evaluation, it can be hard for trans-identified patients to receive proper medical care. Sometimes, they fail to meet the exact criteria for a gender dysphoria diagnosis as laid out by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which excludes many gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people from its parameters, and some prisons will deny care on this basis. Even with an evaluation, trans patients are routinely denied HRT if they weren't on hormones before they were incarcerated. Requests for evaluation don't always lead to one, and they certainly do not always lead to a diagnosis necessary for inmates to receive gender-affirming care.

Such care is often cost-prohibitive, as well. Prisons are required to provide medical care to those they house, but, as Black and Pink's 2015 survey noted, that care "does not need to be free." Respondents reported doctor fees as high as $100 per year, a daunting amount for the incarcerated; forty-three percent of those surveyed said that those costs prevented them from receiving the care they needed.

Advocates for incarcerated trans people say that medical staff and those who field psychological evaluations in prisons need to be competent enough in trans issues to handle all patients in their care. And Lydon and Gehi agreed that moving away from a strictly diagnostic model of medical care would better serve incarcerated trans people.

The ability to access gender-affirming clothing and other goods at commissary can go a long way toward improving the mental health of incarcerated trans people. Trans men are often housed in facilities for women, and trans women are often housed in facilities for men. When they're living in an environment that triggers gender dysphoria by its very design, having access to masculine-scented deodorant or bras and women's underwear—as found in Pennsylvania prisons, for example—can "have a huge impact on people's mental health," said Lydon.

Ky Peterson is one of countless incarcerated trans people housed in a facility that does not correspond with their gender identity. "He has a really great sense of humor [about being a man housed in a women's prison]," according to Shear. "He tries to make the most of it the best he can." His upbeat attitude is no doubt helped by the gender-affirming medical care, including hormones, he has successfully petitioned for, not to mention the binders (chest-flattening undergarments) and boxer-style underwear (as opposed to more feminine panties) that he is now permitted to wear. But not every incarcerated person, trans or otherwise, is as optimistic as Peterson, nor do they all have such an extensive network of support fighting for them on the outside. Their medical well-being, much less their survival, shouldn't hinge on either.

LIVE: Watch Obama’s Final Press Conference

President Obama is set to address the media one final time as POTUS on Wednesday before he leaves the White House at the end of the week. 

The outgoing president, who is currently riding high on a wave of elevated approval ratings, will likely address his decision to commute a large part of Chelsea Manning's 35-year prison sentence. On Tuesday, the White House announced via a press release that the former soldier detained at Fort Leavenworth military prison for leaking classified military documents to WikiLeaks will now be released on May 17, 2017—rather than 2045. 

This could be the last civil White House press conference we'll get see for a few years, considering President-elect Trump's ongoing feud with news organizations he doesn't agree with. Incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus even hinted that the new administration would be making some "changes" to the press briefings going forward, and Trump told Fox and Friends this week that he might pick and choose which journalists are allowed in.

On the bright side, maybe at the next one we'll all finally find out what was actually inside all of those folders Trump wheeled out as a prop at his presser last week. Only time will tell. 

In any case, watch Obama's press conference via livestream at 2:15 PM EST below.

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Everything you need to know about the world this morning, curated by VICE.

US News

President Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning's Sentence
Outgoing president Barack Obama has granted clemency to Chelsea Manning, commuting the bulk of the soldier's remaining time in prison for leaking classified documents. Sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, Manning will now be released on May 17 rather than in 2045. While her lawyer said the decision "could quite literally save Chelsea's life," leading Republicans condemned the move. Senator John McCain called it "a grave mistake." Obama is expected to explain his decision at his final press conference Wednesday.—VICE News

Secret Service Settles Racial Bias Lawsuit for $24 Million
The Secret Service will pay more than $24 million to settle a lawsuit brought by more than 100 black agents who accused the agency of systemic discrimination. The suit alleged that white agents were promoted over better-qualified black agents, though the settlement deal required the Secret Service to admit to no wrongdoing.—The Washington Post

Snowden Permitted to Stay in Russia for Three More Years
Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has been given the OK to remain in Russia for another three years, according to the country's foreign ministry. Spokesperson Maria Zakharova explained in a Facebook post that Russia would not extradite Snowden in that period, even if relations between the two nations improve during the Trump administration.—The Guardian

Former President George H.W. Bush Hospitalized
George H.W. Bush has been hospitalized, according to his office chief of staff. Jean Becker said Bush, 92, was in stable condition and "doing fine" at the Methodist Hospital in Houston's Texas Medical Center after experiencing some shortness of breath.—KHOU News

International News

Nigeria Bombs Refugee Camp by Mistake, Kills 52
The Nigerian military mistakenly bombed a refugee camp in the northeast of the country, killing 52 people and wounding at least 200 others. Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar said the strike had been an attempt to clear the area of Boko Haram militants, and military personnel were "all in pain" over the mistake. The Red Cross said six of its aid workers were among those killed.—BBC News

Fatah and Hamas Agree Palestinian Unity Government
The Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, operating primarily in the West Bank, has agreed to form a unified government with longtime rival Palestinian organization, Hamas, which operates in Gaza, ahead of upcoming elections. After three days of negotiations in Moscow, the two groups announced they will work to create a Palestinian National Council alongside smaller factions such as Islamic jihad.—Al Jazeera

Putin Dismisses Dossier, Calls Russian Prostitutes 'Best in the World'
President Vladimir Putin has dismissed a dossier alleging Russian security services had gathered compromising personal details on US president-elect Donald Trump as "rubbish." Putin said Trump has "socialized with the most beautiful women in the world. It is hard to believe that he ran to a hotel to meet with our girls of a low social class, although they are the best in the world."—CNN

British PM Wants to Withdraw from EU Single Market
Prime Minister Theresa May has said the UK will also quit the European Union's single market, the world's largest trading bloc, when her country exits the EU. Setting out a 12-point strategy, dubbed by the British press as a "Hard Brexit" plan, May said she wanted to create a "bold and ambitious free trade agreement" with the EU from scratch.—Reuters

Everything Else

NFL Denies Asking Lady Gaga Not to Mention Trump
The National Football League has denied claims that Lady Gaga was told not to bring up Donald Trump during her upcoming Super Bowl halftime show. NFL spokesperson Natalie Ravitz described such reports as "false" and "unsourced nonsense." Lady Gaga's representatives confirmed no request had been made.—CNN

North Americans Spent More Than $50 Billion on Weed in 2016, Report Says
A new report by ArcView Market Research estimates that people in the US and Canada spent $53.3 billion on marijuana last year. Illegal sales made up 87 percent of the North American weed market, according to the company's analysis.—The Huffington Post

Seinfeld Agrees to Web Series Deal with Netflix
Jerry Seinfeld has struck a deal with Netflix to move his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to the streaming site. Seinfeld has also agreed to two stand-up specials, the first of which is expected in 2017.—Rolling Stone

CIA Posts 13 Million Pages of Declassified Files Online
The CIA has posted the full contents of its declassified records database—13 million pages—online. It follows a long-running legal battle involving a pledge by transparency campaigners to print, scan, and upload the documents themselves.—Motherboard

Former Apprentice Star Sues Trump for Defamation
Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice who accused President-elect Donald Trump of sexual assault in October, is now suing Trump for defamation. Trump denied the assault claim and accused Zervos of making up a "phony" story.—VICE

Glastonbury Festival to Change It Up in 2019
The UK's biggest music event will change its name from the Glastonbury Festival to the Variety Bazaar when it moves locations for one year only in 2019. "That's a good name, don't you think?" said founder Michael Eavis.—Noisey

President Obama Just Commuted Chelsea Manning’s Prison Sentence

Convicted military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning saw the remainder of her 35-year prison sentence largely wiped out by President Barack Obama Tuesday, paving the way for her release next year, the New York Times reports. 

Manning has already served six years of her sentence for leaking classified military information to the increasingly controversial transparency outfit WikiLeaks. In her time as a transgender prisoner in a male military prison, she has tried to commit suicide twice and also gone on hunger strike in an effort to protest the conditions of her confinement. Now that Obama has approved her commutation application, Manning is set to leave Fort Leavenworth prison on May 17.

In 2010, Manning pleaded guilty to stealing 700,000 military files as an army intelligence analyst in Iraq. The files revealed new details about treatment of detainees by Iraqi military officers and information about the actual number of civilian deaths in the Iraq war. Perhaps most explosively, Manning helped unearth video of a US helicopter strike near Baghdad that left two journalists dead. After pleading guilty in military court, she was convicted of additional charges as well and slapped with a 35-year sentence—the longest punishment in American history for someone convicted of leak.

Obama was seen as Manning's last hope for freedom before Donald Trump took office, and shortly after the election, a White House petition pled with the outgoing president to commute her sentence. That petition reached 100,000 signatures last month, ostensibly requiring the administration to issue an answer within 90 days. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest commented on the application Friday, drawing a contrast with pleas for an official pardon for leaker Edward Snowden. 

"Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing," Earnest said. "Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy."