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President Obama's Commutation of Chelsea Manning's Sentence Most Likely Saved Her Life

Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning
James Esseks,
Director, LGBTQ & HIV Project,
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January 17, 2017

President Obama today commuted most of Chelsea Manning’s remaining sentence for disclosing classified information about the impact of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on innocent civilians. This is an important development both for government transparency and for transgender rights.

With today’s clemency order, she will be released in May 2017 after having served seven years in prison. This isn’t a pardon. Chelsea pled guilty and will face the consequences for many of the charges against her. But the military sentenced her to 35 years in prison, a longer sentence than anyone else in U.S. history has received for disclosing information to the news media.

Chelsea’s imprisonment was made far harder by the fact that she is a woman serving a sentence in a men’s prison. For years during her incarceration, the military denied Chelsea treatment for her gender dysphoria, despite having diagnosed her with that condition soon after her arrest in 2010. The ACLU brought suit for Chelsea back in 2014, seeking access to hormone therapy and to the clothing and grooming standards that all other female military prisoners are subject to. The litigation succeeded in getting her hormones as well as women’s undergarments. But the military continues to prohibit her from growing her hair long, though it did agree last fall to evaluate her for transition-related surgery.

The president’s decision comes after an outpouring of support for Manning since her extraordinary sentence and the ongoing mistreatment throughout her incarceration. In December, the ACLU and over a dozen other LGBT groups sent a letter to President Obama urging him to grant clemency to Manning, and an official White House petition with the same request secured over 100,000 signatures.

President Obama’s action today most likely saved Chelsea’s life. Struggling with the challenge of being a woman in a men’s prison, Chelsea attempted suicide twice in 2016. Allowing Chelsea to start living her life as her genuine self, after having served a quite serious sentence, shows that President Obama understands the meaning of clemency.

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