On Tuesday, days before leaving office, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 273 people. Among them was Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman whose life has been endangered by cruel and abusive conditions throughout her nearly seven years in a men’s prison. She will now be released in May instead of serving out the rest of her original 35-year sentence, but she has already been incarcerated for longer than any other American ever charged with leaking information to the media.
Obama’s act of mercy may very well have saved Manning’s life. And this is not an exaggeration. There continue to be serious problems with inadequate medical care and the prolonged use of solitary confinement in our overcrowded prisons and jails, though the Department of Justice under the Obama administration has made great strides towards rectifying these problems. Incarcerated transgender individuals often face these issues most acutely, and future administrations would do well to continue down the path of reducing harm for this vulnerable population.
Manning is no exception. Throughout her years in prison, the military has continuously sought to unconstitutionally deny her appropriate, medically necessary transition-related health care, despite military psychiatrists recognizing that she had gender dysphoria requiring treatment. This went against recommendations by major medical experts like the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association. The military eventually made limited concessions only after Manning filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense.
Manning is perhaps the most high-profile transgender woman currently in prison, but her experience is far from unique. Results from the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), which we released last month, illustrate this in stark terms. Of respondents who had been incarcerated in the past year, more than one third (37%) who had been taking hormone medications before being incarcerated were prohibited from taking their hormones while incarcerated.
Even worse, Manning spent the first 11 months of her incarceration in solitary confinement, a horrific and unnecessary practice that the United Nations considers to be torture and which the Obama administration has worked to limit in civilian prisons. Last September, Manning was placed back in solitary confinement as a cruel and dangerous punishment for attempting suicide.
Mistreatment of transgender people who are incarcerated is, unfortunately, common. For USTS respondents who had been incarcerated in the last year, the rate of physical and/or sexual assault by staff or other inmates was five times higher than comparable rates for the general US prison population.
Even after Manning walks free in May, transgender people all over the nation — particularly black transgender women — will continue to face discrimination, mistreatment and violence while incarcerated. Nine percent of black respondents to the USTS had been incarcerated, as opposed to 2% of respondents at large, and a 2013 study found that transgender women were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison than the general prison population.
From ensuring that incarcerated transgender people no longer face incredibly high rates of sexual abuse, to making sure that they can receive basic, medically necessary transition-related care, our organization will continue fighting to improve conditions for incarcerated transgender people, and to ensure that the progress we have made so far is not undone.
In terms of Obama’s act of mercy, it does not matter whether Chelsea Manning is a heroine or a villain. She has already served longer, and as a transgender woman she has endured far worse punishment than anyone else convicted of a similar crime — worse than any human being should have to endure.
Throughout his administration, Obama has worked to reduce mass incarceration and inhumane conditions in prisons, including the extreme abuse too often faced by transgender prisoners. He has been a staunch advocate for the dignity, humanity and equality of all people, including transgender people.
Commuting Manning’s sentence exemplifies the American values that President Obama advanced throughout his presidency, and it should be an example for the incoming administration, which should keep in place the protections that already exist for transgender prisoners.