Chelsea Manning is currently incarcerated in a maximum-security facility in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She's been in United States custody for six years, and spent months in solitary confinement. For that entire time, she has been forced to dress like a man, with her hair cropped close to her head. Her connection with the outside world is limited: There are extremely strict rules about who can visit her, and media isn't allowed to speak with her directly, though she can correspond with journalists by mail. At times, her situation seems hopeless, but she has tried to persevere.
"Courage is not fearlessness," she wrote in a letter to Broadly this December. "Courage is the ability to keep going, even when you are unsure of yourself, even when you are nervous, and even when you are terrified. If you can still fight when the odds appear to be against you, and when it looks like you might be fighting it alone, then you are genuinely brave."
In May of 2013, Chelsea Manning was convicted of six counts of espionage and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The former military specialist is responsible for what is considered the largest leak of classified government documents in American history—they include the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary, two data troves that she believed would shed light on the "true cost of war" in the Middle East, such as the United States' failure to investigate thousands of claims of torture in Iraq, the detainment of innocent or low-threat-level individuals at Guantanamo Bay, and thousands of civilian deaths.
Manning's sentence is extreme by any metric. Other convicted whistleblowers have had to serve far less time, often in the range of one to three-and-a-half years—though Manning is just a sixth of the way through her sentence, she has already been incarcerated twice as long as most other convicted whistleblowers. Earlier this year, she made a plea to President Obama to alter her sentence from 35 years to time served, which would free her immediately while recognizing her guilt. Last month, over 100,000 people signed a White House petition making the same demand. The President's second term will end in January, meaning he has less than a month to take action.
Though some people celebrate Manning as a whistleblower—she was the 2013 recipient of the Sean MacBride Peace Prize—others see her actions as treasonous and damaging to the state. "Let's charge [her] and try [her] for treason," a FOX news national security expert, KT MacFarland, wrote of Manning in 2010. "If [she's] found guilty, [she] should be executed." President-elect Donald Trump has selected MacFarland to be his deputy national security adviser, according to CNN.
And even among people who prize government transparency, Manning is often overlooked. The world seems to have rallied behind other, more visible whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden, who has become something of a celebrity from his recluse in Russia. One of the main reasons for this, according to Evan Greer, one of Manning's biggest advocates and the campaign director of Fight for the Future, is that Manning is hidden from sight in prison, denied the right to speak for herself.
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