One of Barack Obama’s final acts as president was to commute whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence, enabling her to be released almost 30 years early. A few months before she becomes a free woman, she has penned a powerful letter for The Guardian detailing her time in prison and thanking those who kept her alive.
Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley) was a member of the US army stationed in Iraq, who quickly became disillusioned by the war. As a result, she took the extremely dangerous path towards justice and leaked almost three quarters of a million classified documents to WikiLeaks.
These included extremely distressing videos, one of which – Collateral Murder – depicted the shooting of a number of unarmed civilians in Baghdad by a US helicopter, and was said to be instrumental in putting WikiLeaks on the map.
Of course, it all came crashing down, as these things often do, and Chelsea was found out and imprisoned. She was sentenced to a total of 35 years, but thanks to the parting decision of Barack Obama – no doubt encouraged by vocal public opposition – she will now be released on May 17th of this year.
During her incarceration (some of which has been in solitary confinement), she has written a number of articles for The Guardian, and her latest is a heartfelt thank you letter to her fellow inmates. Entitled ‘To those who kept me alive all these years, thank you’, the letter details her time in prison and celebrates the bonds she forged during her seven years incarcerated.
“Recently, one of you asked me “Will you remember me?” I will remember you. How could I possibly forget? You taught me lessons I would have never learned otherwise.
When I was afraid, you taught me how to keep going. When I was lost, you showed me the way. When I was numb, you taught me how to feel. When I was angry, you taught me how to chill out. When I was hateful, you taught me how to be compassionate. When I was distant, you taught me how to be close. When I was selfish, you taught me how to share.
Adding to her tough time during the incarceration, was the added issue of undergoing a gender transition. However, she mentions that she confided in other inmates, and it made the journey a lot easier.
“We were friends in a way few will ever understand. There was no room to be superficial. Instead, we bared it all. We could hide from our families and from the world outside, but we could never hide from each other.
We argued, we bickered and we fought with each other. Sometimes, over absolutely nothing. But, we were always a family. We were always united.
When the prison tried to break one of us, we all stood up. We looked out for each other. When they tried to divide us, and systematically discriminated against us, we embraced our diversity and pushed back. But, I also learned from all of you when to pick my battles. I grew up and grew connected because of the community you provided.
Those outside of prison may not believe that we act like human beings under these conditions. But of course we do. And we build our own networks of survival.”
Regardless, it remains an upsetting glimpse into what life is like for her inside the US prison system, and even explicitly details some of the hardships thrust upon her:
“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.”
Thankfully, it ends on a positive note, as she persists in her optimism ahead of her release.
”The most important thing that you taught me was how to write and how to speak in my own voice. I used to only know how to write memos. Now, I write like a human being, with dreams, desires and connections. I could not have done it without you.
From where I am now, I still think of all of you. When I leave this place in May, I will still think of all of you. And to anyone who finds themselves feeling alone behind bars, know that there is a network of us who are thinking of you. You will never be forgotten.”
Whether or not you agree with the US treatment of whistleblowers, it’s a moving letter.
Read the entire thing here.