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Letter from Leavenworth: Chelsea Manning on Struggle to Be Herself in Military Prison

Editor’s Note

Chelsea Manning and Kevin Gosztola exchanged letters in September and October during and just after she was punished by the Army for having expired toothpaste and LGBTQ literature. The first round of letters appears below. The second round of letters will be published on November 10.

Dear Chelsea,

As you may know, I am a journalist, who has covered your case quite extensively. I became interested in covering each development after writing several stories on the U.S. Embassy cables you released. I recognized the importance of covering the source of incredible information, which had made it possible for me to write stories that helped establish my name in media.

Well after you were mistreated at the Marine Corps Base Quantico brig and transferred to Fort Leavenworth, I joined Firedoglake and committed myself to reporting on each stage of your court-martial. Firedoglake has since shut down, and I have joined some of its alumni to co-found a new organization called Shadowproof, which is where our correspondence will be published.

I read a number of interviews you have done, as well as columns you have written for The Guardian, in order to prepare this letter.

What I am immediately struck by when I read your statements or columns is how your life has been a constant struggle to be yourself.

The United States military, in particular, is an institution that breaks down individuals and then builds them back up so they may fit into a unit. However, cultural doctrines of masculinity, which have dominated the military, did not allow you to be the trans woman you are, and you had to hide your true self to a degree that was damaging to your health.

On August 22, 2013, in what you have described as a moment of empowerment, you came out to the world as a trans woman right after a military judge sentenced you to 35 years in prison. “Nobody can control or define our identities unless we let them, and so I chose to come out and to define myself—nothing more,” you wrote.

However, the struggle continues from within the walls of a military prison. Though you successfully won the right to gender-confirming health care, the Army will not let you grow out your hair. In what other ways does this lifelong struggle continue in prison? And how have you sought out additional moments of empowerment in order to manage this struggle?

The U.S. government generally disapproves of prisoners, who seek to become or remain empowered individuals while serving sentences. This is especially the case when prisoners engage in hunger strikes to protest their confinement conditions.

I wonder if some of the Army’s opposition to granting you hormone treatment goes beyond policies, which force trans persons into being straight men or women. Even though hormone treatment is health care that should not be withheld from anyone and you clearly needed it, maybe the Army interpreted your request as an act of resistance and did not want to let you have greater ability to define yourself.

The punishment you experienced for possessing an expired tube of toothpaste and LGBTQ/political literature seemed like a decision by officers at Leavenworth to push back against your continued efforts to define yourself. Whether it is your speech on Twitter or in The Guardian or what you choose to read in prison, the Army found an opportunity to add what they construed as misconduct to your permanent record and hopefully use that to further control you.

In current news, former high-ranking CIA officials have released a book called Rebuttal, which purports to respond to the Senate intelligence committee report and defends CIA torture. One of the pieces of literature, which led to your punishment, was the torture report released last December. What do you think about the irony of having your copy of the torture report confiscated while former officials are able to talk openly about their involvement in torture without any reasonable fear of prosecution?

Shifting to your court-martial, you wrote in your column on the years since you were jailed that you were convinced the U.S. Army prosecutors “did not believe the treason arguments they made” against you, even as the prosecutors spoke them. Why do you think that?

Some of the worst statements made about you were related to the “aiding the enemy” charge. During closing argument, prosecutors said you were an “anarchist,” “hacker,” and a “traitor.” The prosecutors directly challenged your patriotism by twisting an exchange between you and a superior officer about the flag into an example of anti-Americanism.

The prosecutors accused you of breaking ranks with your nation. That said, do you believe the aggressive nature of these statements in military court were made to compensate for the fact that they recognized, on some level, there was some merit to the widespread criticism against the “aiding the enemy” charge?

I will end on a lighter note. Even though I made the decision to focus on journalism, I graduated from college with a Film/Video degree. I spend a lot of time following film.

What, if you have any, are your favorite movies? Is there anything you watched when you were growing up that had an impact on you? And, out of sheer curiosity, have you not had the joy of watching a movie since you were deployed in Baghdad?

I appreciate you taking the time to correspond with me, and I will anxiously await your reply.


Kevin Gosztola

Chelsea Manning’s Reply


Thank you so very, very (very!) much for all of the great work you have done over the years! You and Alexa were, by far, the most vocal people when it came to my case. It was long, arduous, and at times dangerous (security, law enforcement, national security influence, etc) beat to do work in. I am actually quite surprised that we haven’t exchanged letters sooner!

Right now, I’m in my cell on “recreation restriction,” which means I’m writing you by hand (it’s already tired =0), and a few days ago I got word back from DOJ that they will be backing up and defending the hair length restriction. I am uber-depressed right now. I was already getting beat up this summer, and now I’m finally starting to crack.

You are right. I can’t be myself. Every time I try to assert my existence or define myself on my own terms, I get beat up by the world. I’m really scarred, bloodied, and bruised at this point.

It continues every day here at the USDB [US Disciplinary Barracks] because for some reason I don’t stop fighting. I find myself wanting to give up a lot, but then I get a “second wind” of sorts and keep going. I take the military’s special operations and evasion/resistance mantra of only living from “chow-to-chow” and I’ve adopted it for life here. When I get really beat up emotionally, I just focus on pushing through until the next meal.

You are absolutely right that the government—or any government really—disapproves of or fears those of us inmates who try to empower ourselves on our own terms and not theirs. I don’t know if the hormones are related, but the charges, investigation, and the board seem to be related; and perhaps the hair as well.

Now that I think about it, they could be related to each other closely.

What most disturbs me is the passive aggressive nature of the officials who do these things. They do them in a very specific way to make it difficult for us to defend against. For instance, instead of just confiscating the books because of their content, and admitting it, they find a broad rule that has nothing to do with anything and use that to justify their actions. It’s obvious but harder to fight back because they stack the deck. They had three investigators do my charges, three! I would have to hire a professional auditor to go through every item in my cell and learn every rule and interpretation of their rules to be able to defend against these kinds of charges. Unfortunately (fortunately for them), that would be against the rules.

I haven’t read the book “Rebuttal” yet, but I intend to. The important thing, I think, that the seizure of the Senate Report [on CIA Torture] highlights is that I took the time to read the report very thoroughly before I weighed in earlier this year. It proves that I do my research! (as opposed to just giving unsubstantiated “off the cuff” opinions).

You are right to point out the hyperbole in the closing arguments of the trial compensated for the criticism of the “aiding the enemy” charge. I know that the prosecutors were hesitant to go forward so ferociously on that charge because they would say so when they were out of court—albeit discreetly. I could see it in their faces and body language as well.

I have a hard time identifying my favorite movies. I do love the Marvel comic movies, like Iron Man, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Something about them just charms me!

I think that “The Matrix” and a lesser-known movie called “Antitrust” from around that time had an impact on my thinking about the possibilities of technology not quite integrating well with the fragility of humans. Technology plays a vital role in both movies, but the people are messed up!

I watch movies every few weeks or so when they play movies here at the prison. I can’t right now because of the restriction, but I will again soon!

Okay, so I’ve thought about it and my top five movies are (in no order):

Mean Girls
Die Hard
Sixteen Candles

(I have a thing for high school “coming of age” comedies, I guess!) (I don’t know how this fits with Die Hard, but I think John McTiernan as an artist virtually created a new style with his Die Hard movies [Die Hard, Die Hard with a Vengeance] and Predator, that no one can emulate quite right.)

With Warm Regards,

Chelsea Manning

P.S. I nicknamed you “KG” during the trial!

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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