The cruel and unusual punishment of Chelsea Manning

Banners protest the treatment of Chelsea Manning. (Private Manning Support Network/Flickr Creative Commons)

In May 2010, the United States Army arrested Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning), an Army intelligence officer, after her contact with WikiLeaks, and release of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs came to light. The logs contained documents, videos and other information, all of which helped to uncover gross violations of human rights by the United States. As a whistleblower, Manning’s revelations were incomparable until Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s illegal mass-surveillance programs in 2013.   

Unlike Snowden, who is living in indefinite exile in Russia, Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. While Snowden has been afforded a human existence by way of his exile in Russia, Manning has been thrown into the darkest abyss of incarceration, locked away in Kansas.

Chelsea Manning entered the U.S. Armed Forces and prison as Bradley Manning. Her position as a transgender prisoner has also fueled controversy, with a five-day hunger strike ending recently when she was finally granted the right to consult with a surgeon.

After having her transgenderism and right to transitional medication and surgery denied from the beginning of her incarceration, Manning attempted suicide this past July. On Sept. 23, a military disciplinary hearing sentenced Manning to 14-days in solitary confinement for her suicide attempt, with seven of those days suspended, making it an effective seven-day sentence.

Beyond the abhorrent treatment of Manning in regard to her transgenderism, the Army has completed an asinine circle of logic in handing down a sentence of solitary confinement for an attempted suicide. Punishing an individual’s for attempting to take her own life as a result of intense emotional, physical and psychological isolation, with further isolation, is mindless.

Solitary confinement is considered inhumane by most international bodies, including the United Nations.  Amnesty International has been vocal in their opposition to the practice, highlighting federal super-maximum prisons as having “been criticized by human rights bodies, and is being increasingly challenged by US penal experts and others, as costly, ineffective and inhumane.”

After being transferred from a military prison in Kuwait, Chelsea Manning suffered through nine months of solitary confinement in a six by eight-foot cell. In a piece for the Guardian, Manning described psychological torture in the hole: “For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as ‘dancing’ was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps.” 

This treatment is often justified as a reaction to the nature of certain crimes, or as with Manning, for prevention of injury, i.e. suicide watch; yet, using a method treatment considered inhumane for household pets on a human being erodes any basis of legitimacy. Subjecting any prisoner to solitary confinement is in violation of the Eighth Amendment, international law and the United States’ claim to be the only true bastion of liberty and justice.

One could argue for the punishment of Manning, as she did violate the oath she took. Allowing her status as a thorn in the side of the federal government to influence the use of torture violates the faith and word of the Constitution.

This method, even in the name of national security or in response to notable crimes, violates the Eight Amendment. If we sacrifice that, we lose all ability to lecture others on justice and liberty.

Denying Chelsea Manning’s right to live as the transgender woman she is, violates her civil liberties and human rights. Publicly forcing the most notable prisoner in American custody into the lockbox of solitary confinement is an affront to international progress, confirming the United States’ belief that the laws of men do not apply to these shores. The U.S. is not infallible; yet, we are granted de facto immunity to criticism via the strength the same forces now degrading Manning’s existence. The “arsenal of freedom” also guarantees international law has no weight in America.

Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at He tweets @ChrisPSacco.