/ Cory Doctorow with members of the Chelsea Manning Support Network / 11 am Mon, Aug 1 2016
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  • Chelsea Manning, on facing life in solitary after attempting suicide

    Chelsea Manning, on facing life in solitary after attempting suicide

    Last week, the ACLU announced that Chelsea Manning had been charged with a series of bizarre sounding "administrative offenses" involving her recent attempt to take her own life.

    These latest examples of abuse and neglect are, frankly, just what Chelsea has come to expect, as she has been systematically mistreated by the U.S. government ever since she was first taken into custody in 2010, including long stretches of solitary confinement, which the UN considers to be a form of torture.

    Fight for the Future, a non-profit that advocates for civil liberties and free speech, has created a petition at FreeChelsea.com to pressure the Secretary of the Army to dismiss these absurd charges.

    I spoke to staff in contact with Chelsea at the Chelsea Manning Support Network to attempt to understand the details surrounding these charges, and Chelsea's situation in general.


    When Chelsea woke up on the morning of July 5th, after her failed suicide attempt, she was surprised, and relieved, to be alive. She was moved by all the messages from people who want to help and are concerned about her, especially since she's been struggling with painful feelings that her situation may be hopeless.

    However, although the Army has placed Chelsea on "mental health observation" since her return to Leavenworth, they’ve ironically continued to deny her access to the very psychological counseling her mental health would require.

    On the morning of Saturday, July 23, Chelsea called a Support Network volunteer. She was not doing well. It turns out, Chelsea had not been able to see her psychologist for over a week. With no treatment for an entire week, her condition had worsened.

    Apparently, when her regular psychologist is not available, there is effectively no other properly trained alternative. On weekends, her facility doesn’t even have psychologists on-site. This is significant because it was during a weekend, with no psychologist on-site, when Chelsea became depressed and attempted suicide.

    Although she received counseling daily for two weeks after her suicide attempt, her psychologist then disappeared for an entire week and has maintained irregular, unpredictable hours since.

    As Chelsea explains, "I need help, and I'm not getting it."

    Of further concern, first thing in the morning on July 28th, Chelsea was abruptly woken up and handed a charge sheet, right there in her mental health observation room. The document stated Chelsea was under investigation for three listed charges, without any explanation.

    Chelsea has been concerned for weeks that she would be charged for the attempt, as the prison staff had warned her about it, but no one expected this to happen so soon, while Chelsea was in such a fragile state.

    In addition to being given this stressful news, Chelsea has just been told that her psychologist is going to be off-site again for at least another week. And now, Chelsea is yet again being left alone to navigate emotionally demanding circumstances without the counseling she so desperately needs.

    Chelsea is unable to mail a copy of the charge sheet at this time, so she dictated the contents of the document over the phone to a volunteer at her Support Network.

    The charges:

    On Friday morning, Chelsea recalled that that the Department of the Army's Policy Letter #16 lists the descriptions of the prison rules that Chelsea is being charged with violating.

    Upon looking at the Policy Letter, it’s clear that "Category III, IV and V offenses" are considered “serious infractions." Things like "Arson," "Assault" and "Escape." These offenses get you into big trouble: thrown into "maximum security" (solitary) with no chance of parole. Chelsea can potentially get in as much trouble for having the "force cell team" called as if she had started a fire somewhere. This is ridiculous.

    To make matters worse, the rules Chelsea is accused of breaking are so broadly drafted that the prison can selectively enforce them against virtually any inmate it chooses to.

    Let's take a closer look at these charges, one by one:

    1) RESISTING THE FORCE CELL MOVE TEAM CAT IV OR V

    For the "force cell team to be called to the cell" [Section "oo"]

    Complete text of description from the prison rules:

    Section oo. Resisting Forced Cell Moves (Category IV or V offense). Any action taken to
    impede, resist, or interfere with the actions of forced cell move teams, including, but not
    limited to, trying to keep the cell door closed, throwing objects at the Force Cell Move
    Team (FCMT) or attempting to grab team members while in the performance of their
    duties. Any action taken that causes the FCMT to be activated, even if it is not used is
    a category IV offense.

    This is especially absurd because Chelsea was unconscious when the force cell move team arrived -- she couldn’t have "resisted" anything. Chelsea is basically just being punished for the team being called at all -- a perfect example of the prison making the rules apply whenever they see fit.

    2) PROHIBITED PROPERTY III

    Prohibited use of property [Section "ii"]

    Complete text of description from the prison rules:

    Section ii. Prohibited Property (Category III offense). Anything not specifically authorized by
    proper authority to be in a prisoner's possession is prohibited. Prisoners must obtain
    and keep written permission from the Facility Commander, or authorized representative,
    to possess any item not authorized by facility policy or staff. Any item not specifically
    authorized and found in a prisoner's possession will be considered prohibited property.
    Possession of property obtained from trash receptacles, or that which was discarded in
    any other way by other prisoners or staff is prohibited. Property that has been altered
    from its original form without facility authorization will be considered prohibited property.

    Here she is being charged with misusing the things she tried to kill herself with— she is literally being charged for her suicide attempt.

    3) CONDUCT WHICH THREATENS IV

    This accuses her of conduct which threatens [Section "m"]

    Complete text of description from the prison rules:

    Section m. Conduct Which Threatens (Category IV offense). Any conduct which interferes
    with the orderly running, safety, good order and discipline, or security the facility.

    Somehow she is being charged with threatening the “safety" of the facility. As if her actions, alone in her cell to herself, could put the prison facility at risk.

    It should be noted that bringing public attention to these issues might cause the prison to retaliate by restricting Chelsea’s phone calls -- the critical way Chelsea is able to connect to the outside world. (In fact, the prison has the power to do this at any time, for one of any myriad of reasons.) If Chelsea’s calls are taken away, she is cut off from everyone except for her attorneys, and even they have to schedule calls several days ahead of time. This could leave Chelsea without someone to talk to for days. Despite this risk, Chelsea feels the situation is dire enough to get the word out about these issues, and we are grateful that Chelsea is now allowing us to speak out on her behalf.

    Like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea decided to release documents to the public because she felt that the military national security apparatus was being misused by the government. Like Ellsberg, she did what she did knowing that she would probably be going to prison for it.

    What she didn't see coming was excessively cruel pre-trial solitary confinement -- including two months in Kuwait, in a cage (with no light being let in), in a tent, in over 105 degree temperatures -- and then 7 months in Quantico, where she wasn't allowed to lean back or lay down, and was required sit and look directly forward, staring at the wall all day. Again, this was all before she had been tried and convicted of anything.

    Chelsea's recent appeal challenges the constitutionality of the Espionage Act and the vague definition of "unauthorized access" of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act -- but before Chelsea has a chance to challenge anything, she's going to have to survive prison, or have her sentence "commuted" based on her time in solitary, more than three and a half years time served, and extreme over-sentencing to begin with.

    Even if you are someone who believes that Chelsea did something wrong and should be punished, ask yourself: "Isn’t 9 months of solitary, 3 years of imprisonment before even receiving a trial, and three and a half years as a female in an all-male maximum security prison punishment enough?"

    Please sign the Petition to the Secretary Army to drop these charges against Chelsea: FreeChelsea.com

    ACLU Press Release

    Fight for the Future Press Release

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