"The force of days": Manning's 35 very long years

We know, it could have been worse for the whistle-blower -- but his sentence should still overwhelm and disturb

Published August 21, 2013 7:41PM (EDT)

Thirty-five years is not 90 years. Nor is it 60, nor 136. So, indeed, for anyone looking flatly at numbers, it could have been so much worse for Pfc. Manning.

But sheer numerical comparison doesn't pass muster when addressing Manning's sentence. In actuality, these numbers carry in them the weight of years -- homogenous dark years, locked in a cell. For Manning, the matter now is time, presented and handed down to him within two minutes: the cold, hard but ineffable fact of over three decades in prison.

While some commentators were swift to note that government prosecutors did not win their desired (and despicable) request that Manning become an octogenarian before seeing freedom again, the whistle-blower is likely to spend at least a decade in prison. With his nearly three-year pretrial detention taken into account, Manning must still wait almost nine years before he can seek parole.

In eight years' time, Manning will be just 33. Were he to serve his full 35-year sentence he will leave prison nearly a 60-year-old. His prison sentence is 10 years longer than the number of years he has even yet spent on this earth. The point to make here is that prison time is long, homogenous and often dehumanizing. Eight years should not be made light of, let alone 35.

Each of us has (and only has), as poet George Oppen put it so perfectly, "the force of days/Most simple/Most difficult." No more and no less than the force of days -- but days without freedom -- now faces the young whistle-blower; and what this might mean for his sensitive personality and psychological struggles is an unknown quantity. After over 1,000 days in pretrial detention -- often kept in torturous and isolated conditions -- Manning was able to speak powerfully and eruditely during a pretrial hearing about his motivations. Prison days -- their force, most simple or most difficult -- affect every individual differently.

I spoke just now to my friend Andy Stepanian, who is at Fort Meade working on media projects around support for Manning. Stepanian spent three years in federal prison -- a victim of the '90s greenscare -- for animal activism that was ruled terrorist activity. Stepanian told me that just 26 days in solitary confinement psychologically changed him forever. Time, the fact of time, in prison is a dark, strange quantity indeed.

"Every hour, every minute, every second when you're first isolated, you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Stepanian said, stressing that every inmate responds differently to life in a cell. "It's only when you get out that you can even quantify your time in there," he told me, audibly shaken by Manning's sentencing. ("When I heard 35 years, I cried," the former federal inmate and current social justice advocate said, noting Manning's diminutive frame. "He looked like a 14-year-old.")

While the Fort Meade court and media have heard of Manning's suffering with gender dysphoria and other psychological challenges in the military and then in detention, tales of his mental fortitude abound too. At a press conference Wednesday, Manning's lead defense attorney David Coombs told reporters that he and a fellow attorney wept in a small room with Manning immediately following the lightning-fast sentencing announcement. But Manning, Coombs said, did not cry; rather he comforted and thanked his lawyers and said, "I'm going to be OK."

Whether a 35-year sentence will have the effect of chilling future potential whistle-blowers is unknown. The U.S. government has made clear with Manning's case that dissenters who expose American wrongdoing will be punished. Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg said today that he didn't believe Manning's punishment would deter future whistle-blowing, while the Brennan Center for Justice's Liza Goitein feared otherwise, stating that, owing to the Manning example, "public servants who come across improperly classified evidence of government misconduct and want to blow the whistle will now think twice.”

For a 25-year-old who has already spent a significant chunk of his adult life behind bars, it's impossible to imagine how he might wrap his head around the idea of the length of his entire life so far, plus 10 more years, incarcerated. Jean Paul Sartre wrote in his novel "Nausea," "time is too large, it can't be filled up. Everything you plunge into it is stretched and disintegrates." And in particular, prison time -- isolated, controlled, repetitive -- is intended to be time without event. It's an overwhelming thought to countenance when the sentence involves decades.

He may not be facing 60 years, but Manning faces the force of potentially more than 12,000 more days behind bars. Today the force of these days seems most difficult indeed.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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