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.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.