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?

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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.