By Chase Strangio
Chelsea Manning almost died on our watch. She suffered at the hands of our government, and the toll of her incarceration nearly killed her. But she survived. Through long stretches of solitary confinement, the systemic denial of health care, relentless abuse, and a lifetime of consequences, she will have a chance to live.
On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, President Obama commuted Chelsea’s 35-year prison sentence to time served plus 120 days. With the commutation, 28 years were cut from her sentence, and her life was saved. Instead of an anticipated release date in 2045, Chelsea’s prison term will end on May 17, 2017.
When she steps out of prison this week, she will walk into a different world than the one she left behind when she was arrested in 2010. And she will walk as a different person than she was seven years ago. Time, trauma, and survival have changed her and changed all of us.
The first thing Chelsea always says when we talk about her freedom is that she wants to give back to the trans community — to fight for the many trans people, largely trans women of color, held in custody; to continue to connect with trans young people; to share our victories and our struggles; to continue to transform the public narrative about what it means to be trans. She has an unrelenting sense of compassion and justice despite all that she has faced.
With her freedom, she will be leaving behind the abuses of prison but also the life she built there. The family of other incarcerated people who kept her alive when she was cut off from the rest of the world.
In February after her commutation, Chelsea wrote to her friends inside:
“I never would have made it without you. Not only did you teach me these important lessons, but you made sure I felt cared for. You were the people who helped me to deal with the trauma of my regular haircuts. You were the people who checked on me after I tried to end my life. You were the people that played fun games with me. Who wished me a Happy Birthday. We shared the holidays together. You were and will always be family.”
Behind every violent system, there are the beautiful stories of resistance and survival. Chelsea has those to share, and as she steps out of prison, we are all better off because we can share in those with her. We can learn from her and watch her grow.
Chelsea closed her commutation request to President Obama, “I am merely asking for a first chance to live my life outside the USDB as the person I was born to be.”
And now she will get that first chance. She will be able to occupy her body, express her gender, navigate the world, share and grow, love and grieve, on her own terms.
Nothing about the coming days or weeks or months will be easy — but they will be hers — and we will love her and support her and give her space to live.
Chase Strangio is a Staff Attorney with the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project