What Chelsea Manning's commutation means for trans rights
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President Obama announced a momentous decision today to commute the prison sentence of trans activist and former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Manning has spent the past seven years of her life under horrific conditions of incarceration in U.S. military custody.
Her sentence came at the close of a 2011 court-martial where she apologized for her actions and spoke of her desire to provoke "worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms" about the role of U.S. foreign policy and military operations around the world.
During her trial, Manning testified in detail about the severe emotional distress she was experiencing at the time she leaked the documents. It was a moment in her life where she was just beginning to grapple with the difficult process of exploring her gender identity, all while coping with the enormous psychological toll of being deployed in a war zone.
While the president's decision to commute her sentence is certainly a cause for celebration, it should not be forgotten that Manning has suffered tremendous physical and psychological harm.
After seven years, she has already served the longest prison sentence ever applied to a person convicted of leaking secret U.S. government documents. While incarcerated, military prison authorities have acted against the recommendations of independent psychological experts who have met with and assessed Manning, and have repeatedly denied her access to medically necessary gender-affirming care.
According to Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union, she was held in solitary confinement during 11 months of pretrial detention and was later transferred to an all-men's facility on a military base in Kansas, where she will remain until her newly scheduled release on May 17.
In the past six months alone, she has attempted to end her life on at least two occasions; after one of these instances, she was punished by prison authorities and sent yet again to solitary confinement.
In describing her mistreatment as part of a written petition requesting Obama to commute her prison sentence, Manning wrote: "These experiences have broken me and made me feel less than human."
The U.N.'s independent expert on torture considers the prolonged use of solitary confinement a form of torture and has stated more recently that when prison authorities place trans people in isolation "for their own 'protection,'" they are committing an act of torture.
Psychological experts have also decried the excessive use of solitary confinement, noting that by placing trans prisoners in isolation, authorities are exposing them to yet another form of trauma.
Sadly, Manning is just one of many trans heroines who have been held needlessly behind bars because of their audacious efforts to live freely in a more just and open society. Trans women — and particularly those who are poor, from communities of color or undocumented — have suffered a great deal during Obama's time in office.
Dozens have lost their lives to senseless transphobic violence while countless others have experienced horrific abuse in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers across the U.S. Sadly, many of these women end up incarcerated simply because they are being criminalized for seeking to survive: whether it is because they are involved in sex work, using non-prescription drugs or even defending themselves against life-threatening acts of violence.
Obama has taken a number of important steps over the past eight years to expand legal protections for the LGBTQ community. But no final conclusions should be drawn in regards to his legacy without a meaningful reflection on the continued struggles facing those whom his policies have tragically failed to protect.
As he prepares to leave office on Friday, the president should reflect on the irreversible harm that his policies have caused Chelsea Manning and the countless other incarcerated trans women who will continue to suffer long after she is released.
Adam Frankel is an independent human rights researcher based in Los Angeles. Previously, he researched and wrote a Human Rights Watch report on abuse of trans women in U.S. immigration detention. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJFrankel.

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