Growing Out Her Hair Endangers Chelsea Manning’s Safety, Feds Argue

CREDIT: AP Photo/U.S. Army, File

This photo from before Chelsea Manning entered prison shows her expressing her identity as a woman using a wig and makeup.

Chelsea Manning continues to fight for the right to fulfill her gender identity while serving time in an all-male military prison facility. This past week, the Department of Justice filed a new brief in the case arguing that it would present “security concerns” if she were allowed to grow her hair past the prison’s two-inch limit.

The United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) took seven months to investigate the question of letting Manning grow her hair out. She already has access to hormone therapy, female undergarments, and cosmetics, but the investigation found that it was too big of a risk.

The explanations as to why have been redacted, but here is a sampling of the many ways the brief described the prison’s concerns:

  • “This narrow issue is fundamentally intertwined, however, with preserving core prison-security and military values at the UDSB, such as uniform treatment and good order and discipline.”
  • “Defendants’ decision-making regarding Manning’s treatment is motivated by significant and legitimate security, military, and penal concerns.”
  • “Making an exception to the USDB’s generally applicable hair restriction would pose a significant security risk, and would undermine the USDB’s important military mission.”
  • “Col. Nelson determined that ‘permitting Inmate Manning to wear a feminine hairstyle is not supported by the risk assessment and potential risk mitigation measures at this time.'”
  • “The decision not to permit Manning to follow the female grooming standards is substantially related to important governmental interests—i.e., ensuring safety and security within a military prison environment.”
  • “Military courts should have the first opportunity to address the claim given those courts’ superior knowledge of the military’s ‘laws and traditions’ and their ‘thorough familiarity with military problems.'”
  • “And although the USDB recently determined that Manning could not safely be permitted to grow longer hair, that occurred only after a careful review and consideration of the possible risks involved—i.e. [REDACTED].
  • Col. Nelson decided that permitting Manning to wear a feminine hairstyle presented unacceptable risk [REDACTED].
  • Chase Strangio, Manning’s lawyer at the ACLU, could not clarify to ThinkProgress exactly what had been redacted, but said, “Whatever the government’s security concerns may be, we do not think it is proper for those concerns alone to trump her needed medical care either as a matter of law or policy.”

    Strangio acknowledged that “some of the concerns are related to Manning’s own safety” and the government’s “obligation to keep her safe even if she does not share concerns about threats to her safety.” But he pointed out that “there is no question that Chelsea already stands out in a men’s facility,” adding, “There is likely not a person there who does not know who she is or that she is a woman.”

    Indeed, even the Department of Justice seems to understand that Manning is a woman. The brief refers to her with female pronouns and acknowledges that she should be receiving the other accommodations she has been granted as part of the medical care she has been prescribed for her transition.

    At the same time, however, the brief argues that Manning is not “similarly situated” to female prisoners. “Those female inmates are confined in different facilities with different grooming standards, whereas Manning is confined at the USDB, a military prison for men that has a uniform rule of no hair longer than two inches,” it explains.

    Manning has not challenged her placement, but perhaps because that could be a futile cause. The men’s prison she is in at Fort Leavenworth is the only military prison for those convicted 10 or more years of confinement. She also remains a member of the military while she serves, and the military does not allow transgender service members, though that will soon change.

    Strangio rejects the argument that her placement should matter. “The fact that the government has forced Chelsea, a woman, to be housed in an all-male facility should not be the basis for them otherwise denying her constitutional rights to adequate medical care and equal protection.” After all, “She is permitted to wear makeup and has been taking hormone therapy so it is hard to make a case that she is in the same circumstances as the men in the facility.”

    He is skeptical of how much respect can actually be derived from the brief’s language. “Though it is refreshing to see the government use the appropriate pronouns for Chelsea,” he said, “what is clear is that they do not see her as female and are disrespecting her core identity and undermining her medical treatment by continuing to treat her as male and enforcing male regulations with respect to hair length against her.”

    Manning was recently disciplined within the facility for being in possession of expired toothpaste, books, and magazines, but was spared the “indefinite solitary confinement” she could have received.