Some Really Actually Good News: Obama Commutes Most of Incarcerated Trans Woman Chelsea Manning’s Sentence

With less than three days left in office, President Obama commuted much of Chelsea Manning’s remaining prison sentence. Manning is set to be freed in May 2017 instead of finishing her 35-year sentence which would have ended in 2045.

Manning, an army intelligence analyst, was convicted of a military leak in 2010 that shed light on abuses of detainees carried out by Iraqi military working with American forces and showed civilian deaths in the Iraq war were much higher than officials suggested, among other secret information. Manning made the files public in order to incite “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” Wikileaks made the information known and was how the group came to prominence.

Prosecutors charged Manning with multiple counts of the Espionage Act as well as “aiding the enemy,” which later was dropped. Manning pleaded guilty to many of the charges brought against her in hopes for leniency in her sentencing but instead was met with the harshest punishment for a leak case.

“I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose those materials to the public,” Manning wrote in her clemency application. “I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”

She received a 35-year sentence and has been incarcerated at a male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which has proved to be more tortuous punishment for Manning since coming out as a trans woman.

She endured solitary confinement for 11 months during her pretrial confinement at Quantico and then was denied treatment from the prison for her gender dysphoria even though military doctors diagnosed her since 2010. After the ACLU pressured the military to allow Manning to live her life as a woman, they only allowed Manning to take hormones, wear women’s undergarments and some makeup, but have not allowed her to grow her hair longer than the male military-standard haircut and have not given her access to a surgeon that she can talk to about possible bottom surgery. All these factors have made it extremely difficult for Manning to live her truth as a trans woman. In the past year alone, Manning has attempted to kill herself twice. To add insult to injury, she was punished for her suicide attempt in July with solitary confinement.

In November, Manning applied for clemency, desperately asking Obama to commute her sentence to time served so that way she has a chance to live. “I have spent almost all of my adult life either homeless, in the military or in prison,” she wrote. “I haven’t had the chance to live my life yet.”

Last week, NBC News reported that Manning was on Obama’s shortlist for commutation. As President, Obama is granted power under the US constitution to fully pardon individuals who have been convicted of crimes, or to commute their sentences. Since November when Manning applied for clemency, many have urged Obama to commute Manning’s sentence saying it would solidify his legacy as “standing up for trans people’s rights.”

“The Obama administration has done many commendable things to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, but in the case of Chelsea Manning they have systematically mistreated her and denied her access to medically recommended gender-related healthcare,” Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who represents Manning, told the Guardian. “Chelsea won’t survive another five years in prison, much less another 30.”

It’s still unclear how Obama’s decision may play out in regards to Wikileaks founder, accused rapist and seeming Russian hacking sympathizer Julian Assange, who has previously said he would allow himself to be extradited to the US where he would face prosecution if Obama granted Chelsea Manning clemency before his term ended. Currently Assange is “within the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London,” where he has sought political asylum for the past five years. At this time neither Assange nor Wikileaks have issued a statement.

As Friday fast approaches and our country’s impending doom under a Trump presidency will come to actualization, this was one of the last good things Obama could’ve done for us and for Chelsea Manning. He saved Chelsea Manning’s life and allowed her time to live, live, live — free from the confines of a male prison and out in the world as a trans woman. Credit goes to the trans citizens and activists who have worked tirelessly for Manning’s safety and freedom for many years now.


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Yvonne S. Marquez is a senior editor at Autostraddle and a Latina lesbian living in Dallas, Texas. She’s originally from a weird/wonderful place called the Rio Grande Valley, a region along the Texas-Mexico border. She studied magazine journalism in Austin and worked for a local gay & lesbian magazine for a hot second. She’s a true INFJ, Sagittarius and Ravenclaw, so basically she’s quiet and thinks a lot. In her spare time, she tries to read as many books by women of color as she can, hangs out with a bunch of socialists and social justice organizers, and likes drinking local beer. Connect with her on Tumblr or on Twitter.

Yvonne has written 178 articles for us.

24 Comments

  1. 0

    She should absolutely be able to live her life with the medical and emotional support she needs as a trans woman. No one should spend 11 months in solitary confinement. I understand that our prisons are not equipped for any of these issues. They aren’t even able to handle mental illness or general health. We have to hold our government to standards of human decency. They need to be held accountable. But she leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents that put many people in danger. I don’t know if 35 years is too long of a sentence for what she did. What I do know is that there are thousands of people in prison serving insanely unfair sentences for non violent crimes. I think these people are more deserving of commutation. That being said, the hypocrisy of being enraged about her commutation while not seeming to care about Russia’s interference in our election is mind blowing.

    • 0

      In the U.S. we protect whistleblowers who report on illegal activity. We don’t lock them up for decades. This isn’t a matter of “others being more deserving”. They are ALL deserving of shorter sentences or no incarceration whatsoever.

      Manning may have “endangered lives”, but lives engaging in a great deal of illegal activity on behalf of the officials who ordered it. Basically… “tough”.

      • 0

        We protect corporate whistle blowers. She was in the military. What she did was espionage. She didn’t just leak specific information on specific issues. She put innocent lives at risk. Like I said, I don’t know what an appropriate sentence would be. I wish her well. I’m just saying she committed crimes that impacted a wide scope of people. When considering who’s sentences to commute, there were, in my mind,more deserving people. Solitary confinement, gender identity, and poor medical care aren’t issues specific to her. It’s not that I want her to languish in prison for decades.

    • 0

      I agree that all Americans serving unfair sentences for non-violent crimes deserve clemency, but that doesn’t need to be placed in opposition to Chelsea Manning’s freedom. Obama has pardoned quite a few other people as well.

      As for her sentence, seven years under those conditions seems more than punitive enough for people who wanted to see her suffer for what she did. Charles Graner served 6 and a half years of a 10 year sentence for physically and sexually torturing people at Abu Ghraib. When Manning leaves prison she will have served more time in prison than Graner.

      • 0

        Also more time then Brock Turner. >_>

        I know, I know regular civilian who committed “normal” civilian crime against a fellow citizen not the same, but I’m going to bring that fucker up anytime there’s convo about unfair sentencing.

    • 0

      35 years is a sentence that is far out of proportion to her crime. I agree that simply releasing thousands of documents, rather than only specific incidences of bad behavior on the part of the US government, was not the right choice. This goes beyond whistleblowing, and did put people at risk – and to me that is worthy of some consequences. But to sentence someone who committed one well intentioned, if irresponsible and risky, act in her early 20s to spend decades in prison is, in my opinion, deeply unethical. It also sends a bad message about our priorities to give someone who leaked information about detainee abuse a longer sentence than those who engaged in or ordered this abuse.

      Even though I believe she made a mistake, Chelsea has suffered more than enough and endured things no one should have to endure. I’m very glad that she has a chance now to actually live her life. I wish more people serving unfair sentences had that chance, but that doesn’t take away my happiness and relief about her release.

    • 0

      Let’s not forget that Obama is still part of the reason that Chelsea was imprisoned to begin with. She had to advocate for her own rights to be met and she introduced her own petition for a reduced sentence. The activists/human rights groups who held his feet to the fire and Chelsea herself are the ones who deserve the praise, not the administration who put her through all this in the first place.
      (Not picking on you specifically because I know “thanks Obama” is basically a meme, but I thought it was a point worth making.)

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