It has been five years since Chelsea Manning was arrested and charged with various offenses in connection with her release of documents and other materials to WikiLeaks, including the Collateral Murder video. It has also been five years since Chelsea was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria by the military.
In the two years she has been incarcerated at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Chelsea has been fighting to be treated as female and have her serious medical needs addressed by the military.
Last September, she filed a lawsuit with the ACLU against the Department of Defense and various defense and Army officials demanding that she be treated for her severe gender dysphoria.
As a result of that lawsuit and her persistence in fighting for her medical care, she is now being treated with hormone therapy and permitted some cosmetics to feminize her appearance. But despite repeated recommendations from her military doctors, this September the military doubled down on its position that it would not permit her to follow female hair length and hair grooming standards. The decision means she is forced to have her hair cut every two weeks in a “masculine” fashion that may not exceed two inches.
Chelsea described the effect of these forced haircuts in a post on Medium: “I felt sick. I felt sad. I felt gross — like Frankenstein’s monster…” “After five years — and more — of fighting for survival,” she went on, “I had to fight even more. I was out of energy.”
She amended her lawsuit last month to renew her challenge to the enforcement of these male standards against her. The amended complaint argues that Chelsea is being denied equal protection of the law and is subject to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
Now, the government has moved to dismiss her lawsuit, arguing among other things that “permitting Manning to wear a feminine hairstyle present[s] unacceptable risk.” “[E]ven if Manning herself is unconcerned about this risk,” the government argues, “her view does not reduce the USDB’s responsibility to guard her safety…”
Though the government undoubtedly must keep Chelsea safe while she is in incarcerated, that obligation does not absolve them of their simultaneous obligation to treat her serious medical needs. Sadly, this type of argument has become commonplace with corrections agencies using the Prison Rape Elimination Act as a sword to harm vulnerable prisoners instead of a shield to protect them.
Like the federal government in Chelsea’s case, the Idaho Department of Corrections in its PREA directive connects its ban on feminine appearance in men’s facilities to its obligation to prevent sexual violence:
“To foster an environment safe from sexual misconduct, offenders are prohibited from dressing or displaying the appearance of the opposite gender. Specifically, male offenders displaying feminine or effeminate appearance and female offenders displaying masculine appearance to include, but not limited to, the following:
- Shaping eyebrows
- Face makeup
- Gender opposite clothing”
Perhaps telling of the culture of corrections we have come to accept, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted this about a pending case concerning labor practices in the Washington Department of Corrections:
“Amazingly, one of the Union’s experts offered the following view: Female inmates cannot be shielded from the world in which we live. If they are to reintegrate into society, they have to be taught how to deal with abusive staff, male or female. They have to be taught what constitutes a healthy interaction and what does not. They cannot learn those skills if they are sheltered from contact with males in a position of authority. Sexual abuse is present in all areas of our society: in schools, (at all levels), business, government, military and families. Just as females have to be taught how to deal with those abuses in the larger society, female inmates must be taught as part of the rehabilitation process how to deal with all abusive staff: males and females, custody staff and civilian staff.”
No person — male or female, transgender or cisgender — should have to deal with sexual abuse while incarcerated. That does not mean, however, that to prevent sexual abuse we should tolerate prisons denying any prisoners their right to medical care under some tenuous argument about security.
It is only if we have accepted that prisoners retain no dignity and no humanity that we could even consider these arguments. If that is where we are as a society then we have a problem. We mustn’t accept the cruel and inhumane treatment of our incarcerated community members. Not only is it unconstitutional, it is unconscionable.