Chelsea Manning Could Get Solitary Confinement For The Most Ridiculous Reason

According to her attorneys, government whistleblower and transgender rights activist Chelsea Manning is facing indefinite solitary confinement after being accused of prison infractions, which range from disrespecting a guard to having contraband in her possession. Manning is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for leaking more than 700,000 government documents to Wikileaks — the largest such leak in history. Next week, Manning's attorneys will represent her in a hearing to determine whether she will spend an indefinite period — which could mean days, weeks, or even years — in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day without any human contact.

The practice of sending inmates to solitary confinement — for any reason — has come under fire in recent years because of its impact on inmates' mental health and suicide rates. Following the first-ever congressional hearing on prison segregation, a Senate subcommittee voiced deep concerns over solitary confinement, calling the practice "expensive and counterproductive" to prisoner rehabilitation.

So what did Manning do to be facing such a punishment? According to her attorneys, the Army private is accused of a range of "crimes" which include possessing an expired tube of toothpaste and a copy of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover.

The Justice Fellowship, an advocacy group pushing for broad-based reform of America's prison system, states on its website that the original theory behind solitary confinement was to isolate prisoners who committed serious violent offenses while behind bars. But today, most inmates are held in segregation units for a wider range of reasons, from disciplinary offenses to protection concerns.

Far from being used just on inmates who commit violent crimes behind prison or test positive for drugs, solitary confinement is often used to punish prisoners suspected of gang involvement or political activity. In addition, underage and transgender inmates are often placed in segregation, or "involuntary protective custody," to keep them away from the general prison population.

Reliable data on solitary confinement is difficult to come by, but according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80,000 prisoners were in segregation units in 2005, the last year that comprehensive data was available to the public.

In an interview with USA Today, Manning's attorneys said that she is being charged with disrespecting a prison guard, disorderly conduct, and possessing a number of items deemed contraband. Such items include several books and magazines on trans rights, a copy of Cosmopolitan featuring an interview with her, a tube of toothpaste with an April 2015 expiration date, and an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover.

The nonprofit prison project Solitary Watch says on its website that in most federal prisoners, solitary can last from two to seven days at the most. For possessing a magazine and expired toothpaste, Manning is facing an indefinite sentence, which could mean days or years.

Speaking to USA Today, Manning's attorneys said that they believe she's being harassed. ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio said:

This kind of action has the potential to chill Chelsea’s speech and silence her altogether. We are hopeful that the prison will respond by dismissing these charges and ensuring that she is not unfairly targeted based on her activism, her identity, or her pending lawsuit.

Even though she isn't allowed Internet access, Manning has become a vocal advocate for trans rights while in prison, tweeting under the handle @xychelsea and writing a regular column on global affairs, intelligence, and transgender issues for The Guardian.

USA Today reported that Manning's hearing will be held on Tuesday, August 18 in the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Image: Chelsea Manning