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Chelsea Manning Reflects on Army’s Punishment for Expired Toothpaste & LGBTQ Literature

In letters from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Chelsea Manning reflects on the punishment she received from the United States Army for having an expired tube of toothpaste and possessing books and magazines, which had to do with LGBTQ and political issues.

Manning is serving a thirty-five year prison sentence at Leavenworth. She was convicted of offenses stemming from her decision to provide WikiLeaks over a half million U.S. government documents, which exposed war crimes, diplomatic misconduct, and other instances of wrongdoing and questionable acts by U.S. officials.

The Army imposed 21 days of “recreational restrictions,” which went into force on September 17. She was not allowed to go to the gym, library, or outdoors. And, more significantly, administrative “charges” she received for what the Army considered misconduct became a part of her permanent record.

“The timing was awful emotionally,” Manning recalled, in a letter to me. “The day that I started the restrictions lined up in such a way that the awful news about the fact that I’m going to have to go through another long, drawn out legal battle over something very simple and personal happened about the same time.”

What Manning meant is the Army had notified her it would prohibit her from growing her hair, and the Justice Department would back up the Army while it defended the hair restriction in court.

“I felt very hurt—a lot more than I expected,” Manning shared. “To make matters worse, my main outlet for emotional support and comfort when I’m feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, or hurt is music. I don’t have access to anything that stores music whatsoever, but I do have a radio—and that was taken away on the same day.”

“It compounded everything by making me sit alone in a quiet empty cell. I felt really, really small and insignificant. I haven’t felt that bad in years,” Manning added.

Prior to a disciplinary board hearing, Manning requested a “formal demand for trial by court-martial.” She explained she was denied a “formal trial” because the prison claimed the “charges” were “administrative” and not criminal.

“This is troubling because these boards for prison discipline yield far, far more power than most other administrative boards in the military, such as the ‘non-judicial punishment’ boards under Article 15, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ),” Manning argued. “They are basically rigged by the senior staff,” and “you cannot win once your charges go to a more serious ‘three member’ board.”

Yet, Manning was not put in solitary confinement for any part of her punishment. She attributed this to “public scrutiny” and “fear of pressure from the military leadership.” She also asserted she received a lighter punishment to prevent her from “being able to appeal to a higher authority.”

Chase Strangio, Manning’s attorney from the ACLU, commented, “Despite some progress in our lawsuit resulting in Chelsea receiving critically important treatment including hormone therapy, the government continues to enforce and defend its application of male hair length and hair grooming standards to Chelsea, thereby undermining her medical care and violating her rights to be treated like all other women in military prison.”

“This unconstitutional treatment is causing Chelsea to experience extreme anxiety and depression and we will keep fighting for her safety and right to equal treatment,” Strangio added.

As previously indicated by Strangio, one of the harshest aspects of the punishment she incurred is the “charges” will follow Manning through the parole and clemency process. She will be imprisoned “longer in the more restrictive custody, where she is now incarcerated.”

And now, on top of that, Manning must fight the U.S. Army, backed up in court by the legal arm of the U.S. government, in order to be herself and grow her hair to “female standards” in the Army.

Read Chelsea Manning’s letter describing her struggles in military prison here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."