Chelsea Manning isn't spending her prison sentence sitting idly by. The U.S. Army whistleblower, who is currently serving a 35-year-sentence for divulging classified government documents to WikiLeaks, recently gave her first interview from prison to discuss her fight to live as a transgender woman during her incarceration -- and the ways she's trying to help other trans prisoners survive.
In a follow-up editorial by Abigail Pesta, who spoke with Manning for Cosmopolitan, the transgender rights and anti-secrecy activist explained that her legal battles over hormone therapy and the military's grooming standards are not simply for her own sake, but also on behalf of trans inmates serving time in other prisons. Many have reached out to her, though Manning is prohibited from communicating with outside prisoners directly.
"I am certainly aware of other cases where trans women are seeking treatment in state and federal facilities," Manning said. "I feel a connection to many of them. But I worry because many of them don’t have access to the same resources as I do. I hope that my fight can help make it easier for them to survive."
But, offering a view that contrasts sharply with the work of trans rights advocates who have pushed to allow inmates to serve time in prisons of their self-identified gender, Manning has been adamant that she does not feel a need to be transferred to a women's prison:
“Is there a difference between a male and female prison? No,” she said. “They’re the same thing.” She said she is not under threat from other inmates: “The guys here are adults and -- even if they’re not necessarily supportive -- they’re the last people who want to cause any problems for anyone.”
She said she tries to ignore the prison employees. They are “just not worth the trouble of interacting with because you can’t trust any of them. I mean, they’re there, but they’re like fixtures in the background -- like the doors, walls and furniture. It’s better to think of them that way, because you can ignore them and not take anything they say or do personally,” she said. “You don’t get mad at your furniture.”
Manning also mentioned "laying low" and "sticking to yourself" as coping mechanisms, but her assertion that she is not under threat from other inmates paints a picture of a trans prison experience that differs starkly from the norm. On average, transgender inmates are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population, and 59 percent report sexual abuse.
Earlier this month, the New York Times detailed the horrifying abuse one trans woman experienced while serving time in a men's prison in Georgia, the common nature of which has motivated some correctional departments to create separate spaces for trans inmates.
So while it might be something of a relief for Manning to feel safe around her "furniture" and fellow prisoners, her experience also appears to be rare. But it also makes her fight to help other transgender women survive in prison all the more important.