What Chelsea Manning can expect in a US prison

The soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning has announced that from now on she will living as a woman. What will life be like for a trans woman inside the US prison system?

Today we finally learn officially that one of the most-speculated, hitherto unconfirmed aspects of the entire Bradley Manning saga is indeed true. Bradley – or rather, Chelsea as she must now be known - is transgender.

As a statement put out today explains: Bradley wishes to transition, commencing hormone therapy as soon as possible, and to be known henceforth as Chelsea.

It was, of course, one of the worst kept “secrets” on the block: speculation on the matter first became public in 2010, with revelations in Wired magazine. But like most journalists who cover trans issues, it felt none of my business, and largely irrelevant to the case in hand.

Like Paris Lees, who wrote on this issue earlier in the week, I am reluctant to claim Chelsea as “trans hero”. She is a hero for what she has done, but there is no reason why being trans, any more than not being trans, can be claimed as a “reason” for virtue. There will in future be heroes who are trans, just as there will be villains.

Chelsea is trans. That is all.

Or rather, that is not all. Paris also writes eloquently about the horrors that await the trans prisoner. The unique torture of being forced to conform to a gender role not one’s own. In the UK, thankfully, a gradual and growing understanding of the trans condition means that, by and large, UK trans prisoners are treated humanely, allowed access to treatment and HRT. There are also reasonably clear rules as to which estate (male or female) trans prisoners should be assigned to. This despite the spluttering outrage of tabloids regarding the cost of such treatment. 

Two tendencies, well, three, perhaps, come together in a recent Express diatribe (I won’t dignify it with the title of “news”), about prisoners “forcing” taxpayers to foot a £90k bill for gender re-assignment. There is the idea, all too common, that once one has committed a crime, access to ANY Human Rights becomes privilege.

There’s the cost, which plays so well to the selfish, greedy Taxpayer’s Alliance audience. And then there’s that small question of accuracy. A little digging suggested the figures quoted to be ever so slightly pie in the sky. I have successfully challenged other misreported transgender costs through the Press Complaints Commission, but since the Express doggedly refuses to be part of the PCC, their world view is unchallengeable.

How do these factors play in the US? According to the group Stop Prisoner Rape, more than 200,000 men are raped behind bars each year: it seems likely that this is a special risk for trans prisoners.

The public health system mostly does not support individual transition. However, a freedom of information request by the Smoking Gun to the Bureau of Prisons revealed, in June of this year, that there are at least 61 trans prisoners currently in the system – and that these are all receiving HRT. (Although, since it is not clear on what basis the list was compiled, it is equally unclear whether this is good news or bad.)

The US is also home to the same old, same old bleats against taxpayer dollars being squandered on “undeserving” prisoners. In 2008, Massachussetts state senator, Scott Brown, attempted unsuccessfully to introduce laws that would ban the use of tax money to pay for the surgery for prison inmates.

He was therefore predictably apoplectic, when US District Judge Mark Wolf ordered the State of Massachussetts to pay both the legal and gender re-assignment costs for convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek.

This, according to Senator Brown, would be "an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars", and apparently as many as 84 other people agreed, signing a petition to that effect on change.org.

The US may be getting better, superficially. However, the scope for spite against trans prisoners remains. Another high profile trans prisoner, Cece McDonald, wrote recently of the unique torture inflicted on one trans woman in the US prison system, including “sexual harassment during cross-gender strip searches”.

She goes on: “This has included ridiculing her anatomy, threating her, and exposing her to male inmates”.

Prophetically, ironically, perhaps, she also writes of US “bigotry and hypocrisies that prove that LGBTQI-GNC people are dispensable when it comes to fighting for the country and risking lives, but we are not granted the equalities of any cis/heterosexual individual”.

The point is, given the unique nature of being transgender, there are many things that, while troubling to the non-trans are, literally torture to the trans individual. Which means that back in 2011, while the rest of the world was speculating on whether Chelsea was trans, the US government, which must have had a much better idea, was, through the mechanism of forced strip searches, starting to torture her. Out of spite? Ignorance? Who knows.

The fear is that, such is their desire for revenge against Chelsea, the state-sponsored viciousness has only just begun.

Chelsea Manning arriving at the sentencing in Fort Meade on 21 August 2013. Photo: Getty

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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