Oppose the UK – Jamaica prison deal

Jamaica-Prison

Activists in the UK are mobilizing against the Cameron government’s proposed diversion of foreign aid to build a new prison in Jamaica, and open a transatlantic export trade in inmates.

public meeting to discuss opposition to the plan will be held Thursday, November 5, from 7:00 – 8:30 PM (SOAS Russell Square campus, room 583, London WC1H 0XG: map here). On Friday, November 6, there will be a 10 AM demo in front of the Jamaican High Commission (1 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ: map here), to kick off a London day of action against the prison-industrial complex.

This is all part of a November 2-8 week of actions across the UK, aimed particularly at Cameron’s plan to build a new super-prison in North Wales that would be the second largest in Europe.

Prisoner transfers — forced deportations of convicts — are a point where paranoias over crime and paranoias over migration meet. With Europe and North America more and more dominated by prisons and barbed-wire border fences, this intersection is ominous.  Luke de Noronha writes movingly about some of his experiences with Jamaicans deported so far:

Many of the deported persons I have met lived in the UK for over ten years, built lives for themselves, started families, picked up regional British accents, and began to call the UK home. When they are forcibly returned, many land with a few tenuous family links at best, some with none at all. Some have to be housed in homeless shelters …

As one young man told me, he has only taken two flights in his life. The first, a flight to England to join his mother, aged 15. The second, and perhaps his final: a flight to Jamaica, in which he was restrained in handcuffs on a chartered plane from the UK, in November 2014. With tens of other black men, handcuffed to their seats, escorted by security agents, he was flown, against his will, to a country in which he had no support or resources. If this image does not feel uncomfortable, then we really are in a place where historical amnesia rules. A place where wrenching somebody from their home is a matter of justice for the “British tax-payer,” where bodies and lives are forcibly transported to honour racially inscribed citizenship policies, and where, ultimately, deportations are celebrated while reparations are ridiculed.

You can read more here — or, of course, on this blog. 

Storming of the courthouse during the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). British authorities slaughtered rebels protesting the use of criminal law to preserve the structures of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Storming of the Courthouse During the Morant Bay Rebellion, by Barrington Watson (1931 -). In 1865, British authorities in Jamaica slaughtered rebels protesting how criminal law preserved the conditions of slavery three decades after its ostensible end. Jamaica commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Rebellion last month.

Slavery’s ghost: Prison imperialism, Jamaica, and the UK

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

Young boys in a Jamaican prison cell, 2007. Photo © Gary S. Chapman, from www.garyschapman.com

This essay is dedicated, in humble gratitude, to the memory of Dr. Robert Carr.

David Cameron is in Jamaica as I write. Undoubtedly the British prime minister was expecting difficult questions on his visit: from Jamaicans, about reparations for slavery, which their government demanded he discuss; from gay men back at home, about homophobic violence on the island, which they wanted him to combat. (Jamaican LGBT advocates themselves don’t necessarily want the leader of the former slave power doing a lot of shouting on their behalf; but that’s a preference of which Peter Tatchell and his comrades take no heed.) Plus there are the questions about sex with dead pigs. Yet Cameron, far more deft than his daftly pink-cheeked Bertie Wooster mien suggests, had a distraction ready.

Once in Kingston, Cameron announced that the UK is taking £25 million (about US$ 38 million) from its foreign aid to Jamaica to finance a vital development need: a new prison. This puts Jamaica in a small, select class of nations: the UK can force prisoners to go there. It’s worth considering what this promise means. A commerce in prisoners is spreading round the world, sometimes following the almost-erased tracks of the old slave trade. Cameron’s offer reveals the hidden economics of the traffic in human bondage.

Prisoner transfer agreements — by which two countries stipulate that citizens of one who are convicted of a crime in the other can be sent back home to serve their sentence — have been around for a long time. Usually, though, they’re voluntary agreements; they require the prisoner’s consent. And many Jamaicans, Nigerians, or Albanians serving prison terms in the UK won’t consent to return to carceral systems that are overcrowded, underrresourced, and by reputation brutal. So Cameron’s administration has been trying to bully or cajol countries into agreeing to compulsory repatriation – to take their imprisoned citizens back whether they want to go or not. One difficulty has been the usual devil-in-the-details, human rights. Experts have condemned conditions in Jamaica’s prisons for failing international benchmarks: UK prisoners facing forced repatriation there could challenge it in British courts, pointing to the threat of inhuman treatment and abuse. The UK’s solution is to build Jamaica a prison that will seem up to snuff.

No sudden moves. I'm surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

No sudden moves. I’m surrounded by black men with knives. Cameron tiptoes gingerly through honor guard on arriving in Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica calls the deal a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” (it still needs parliament’s ratification) and makes it sound extremely nice: the goal is “to improve the conditions under which prisoners are held in Jamaica, consistent with best practice and international human rights standards, through the construction of a maximum-security prison in Jamaica.”  It’s true that “international human rights standards” and “maximum-security prison” are phrases not always thought seamlessly compatible, but let that pass for now. The UK government’s statement drops the happy talk and non-binding bit, and stresses that it wants a 1500-bed facility, which will house 300-plus prisoners now serving long-term sentences in Britain, with more to come in future. “The prison is expected to be built by 2020 and from then returns will get underway,” says Downing Street. “The Prisoner Transfer Agreement is expected to save British taxpayers around £10 million a year.” Cameron added that

It is absolutely right that foreign criminals who break our laws are properly punished but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the hardworking British taxpayer. That’s why this agreement is so important. It will mean Jamaican criminals are sent back home to serve their sentences, saving the British taxpayer millions of pounds but still ensuring justice is done.

That the agreement will, in his words, “help Jamaica, by helping to provide a new prison – strengthening their criminal justice system,” seems a bit of an afterthought.

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009. By RasMarley from flickr.com

Prisoner in Kingston Jail, Jamaica, 2009: photo by RasMarley from flickr.com

The announcement did not go down well in Jamaica. The leader of the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wondered in parliament why this was coming out of development funds, saying that “building schools contributes much more to the growth agenda than building prisons.” The youth wing of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP) also condemned the agreement, pointing out that the UK is only funding 40% of the cost, the rest to be covered by Kingston; and that once the prison is built, the burden of keeping and rehabilitating the prisoners — which they estimate at J$ 365 million (about US$ 3.1 million) per year –would also fall on Jamaica’s treasury. (In fact, the Jamaican government claims, but the UK doesn’t mention, that Britain would give “a further £5.5 million towards the reintegration and resettlement of prisoners.” Anyway, if true, that would presumably be a one-shot offer.) The real discomfort about the deal in Jamaica, though, seems far deeper: drawing on the anger that rose in the reparations dispute over a past of slavery and oppression, a persistent demand for justice that shadowed Cameron’s tour. Symbolically, what does it mean for the British government to buy from Jamaica the right to export its prisoners? Are servitude and its machinery still commodities for sale? Comments on Jamaican newspaper articles ran like this:

So the communist are suppose to be the evil people. The Chinese build highway, Cuba build colleges and high school, the (former) slave masters return to build prison.

And I saw the same spirit in threads on the Facebook pages of Jamaican friends:

We dont need a prison from England. We can get a prison from elsewhere. England owe us more than a prison.

Its a damn shame and height of disrespect to our people….after dem slave we already, all dem can com offer us is prison … fuck dem bloodcloth off!!!!!!

(“Bloodcloth” is a Jamaican obscenity that I wouldn’t translate even if I thought I could.)

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

Panopticon: Pentonville Prison, UK

There is truth in this; prisoners are commodities. We live — so the rich remind us — on a globe that has been globalized, where everything travels and is trafficked. People travel; they become prisoners; then they travel back, under state supervision. This process is now so common that the UN has proposed a “Model Agreement on the Transfer of Foreign Prisoners“; the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) offers a manual on the subject; there is a European treaty on prisoner transfers, and the EU has promulgated regulations for member states. One theme pervades these documents, that “rehabilitating” prisoners is a key motive behind transfers. The EU framework decision even phrases this as a “should” — a requirement of transfers:

Enforcement of the sentence in the executing State [that is, the country receiving the transfer] should enhance the possibility of social rehabilitation of the sentenced person. In the context of satisfying itself that the enforcement of the sentence by the executing State will serve the purpose of facilitating the social rehabilitation of the sentenced person, the competent authority of the issuing State [the one that passed the sentence] should take into account such elements as, for example, the person’s attachment to the executing State, whether he or she considers it the place of family, linguistic, cultural, social or economic and other links to the executing State.

That provision only applies to transfers among EU member countries, but it indicates a more general justification. Thus the Jamaican government promises that “The new facility will be designed and constructed with a focus on rehabilitation, which should reduce the high rates of recidivism that now occur.” Similarly, the UK prisons minister has said forced transfers “mean that these prisoners will be closer to family and friends.This helps to support prisoners’ social rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” It’s generally true that proximity to family can ease a prisoner’s re-entry after release. But of course, many Jamaican prisoners in Britain have closer family ties in Clapham than in Kingston, and are more culturally at ease in Brixton than Montego Bay. This is also “globalization”; yet the British government shows no disposition to ascertain where anybody’s “family, linguistic, cultural” and-so-on affiliations lie. The truth is, social benefits to the prisoners are the last thing on most governments’ minds in transfer policies. What matters is simple: politics and money.

And in the UK, politics means immigration. Mass mania over migration drives the whole UK political process.  A poll last month showed 56% of Britons named immigration as a major concern. For years, the percent of Britons calling it the most worrying concern has been three to four times the average in other countries.

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

From an Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute report, Perception and Reality: Public Attitudes to Immigration, 2014

Fears of criminality always seed anti-immigrant feeling. (Think Donald Trump and those Mexican rapists.) Though capitalism mandates mobility more and more sweepingly, mobility as spectacle and spectre rouses deep terrors about stability and safety. British newspapers thunder about “foreign prisoners” constantly. You might think them less of a menace, because they’re in prison; instead, they’re vital to immigration paranoia. They’re countable; they make dread specific.And the ones already imprisoned prove all foreigners are a threat. “The number of foreign prisoners is growing and attempts to remove them are often futile”! “Foreign inmates outnumber British nationals in a UK prison for the first time”! “Every time Britain manages to deport a foreign prisoner another one takes their place in jail”! They’re making “the UK a permanent safe haven for the world’s killers, rapists, drug-dealers and other assorted scum”! In fact, while the number of foreign prisoners doubled in twenty years, so did the number of prisoners in the UK overall. You can debate whether a crime wave, harsh sentencing, or more repressive policing caused this. But the proportion of foreign prisoners has barely risen at all.

Foreign_prisoners_UK_jails_v2

Graph from FullFact.org

Facts don’t matter, of course. Within six months of taking office in 2010, Cameron’s coalition government tried to placate the panic, by vowing to deport the foreign prisoners: to “tear up agreements that mean convicts cannot be returned home without their consent.” It didn’t work. In fact, in Cameron’s first term the number of deportations actually fell.

foreign criminals chart

From the Daily Mirror, 2014

Cameron needed agreements, despite the talk of tearing them up; and few countries were willing to sign them. Moreover, even criminals who had finished their sentences (presumably easier to deport, because you didn’t need a foreign prison system to agree to take them) were fighting removal in the courts, successfully.The government was reduced to creating a team of pop-psych mavens, tasked with visiting prisoners to talk them into self-deporting. “The unit uses psychological techniques known as ‘nudge theory’ to help people make better choices for themselves.”

Expert: Would you like to leave the country?
Prisoner: No.
Expert: What if I give you money?
Prisoner: How much money?
Expert: It’s a hypothetical question.
Prisoner: No.

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

There is a foreign woman on my back. Please get her off: Raab and wife

In 2014, Dominic Raab — a young, telegenic, misogynistic, Europe-hating, ultra-right Tory back-bencher (the son of a Czech Jewish refugee, the husband of a Brazilian bride) — led a rebellion against Cameron. He proposed to grease the ejection seats for “foreign criminals,” stripping power from the courts and giving the Home Secretary final say. He boasted that “only one case every five years” would qualify to stay in Britain. The government’s response “was a mess,” one conservative pundit wrote, “first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at the last moment.” Raab invoked the ultimate terror and temptress of the Tory right: UKIP, the extremist UK Independence Party, which every Conservative dreaded could drain their votes if they didn’t stay hard-line enough. To block his measure, Raab warned, “would be a bow-wrapped gift for UKIP.” 85 MPs joined him in revolt; Cameron only beat back the proposal with Labour’s help.

UKIP, obsessive on the subject of immigrants and crime, press-ganged everyone rightward. They demanded immediate deportation for “foreign criminals,” and damn the law. Prison Watch UK graphed their monomania:

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

Analysis of UK political party manifestoes for the 2015 general election

UKIP came in third in the 2015 election, winning one seat — but almost 13% of the vote. If the Tories could lure away enough UKIP voters, they could dream of a permanent majority. In his new government, Cameron named the onetime rebel Raab an undersecretary in the Justice Ministry, with the title of “minister for human rights.”

Where does the money part come in? In the story of how Cameron pursued expulsions — and here you need to burrow back a bit. One of the first model prisoner-transfer agreements the UK reached came in 2007 under Tony Blair, who set the pattern for the Conservatives in so many ways. It happened in Libya, and it happened because Muammar Qaddafi wanted one particular prisoner back: Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, serving a life sentence in Scotland for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Blair, meanwhile, wanted an oil contract for BP. In the “deal in the desert,” Tony flew to Tripoli and offered up al-Megrahi, concealing the gift under a comprehensive prisoner transfer accord — without consulting the Pan Am families, or his pet Scottish government. Qaddafi then gave the petroleum giant exclusive rights to drill in three vast blocs the size of Belgium and Kuwait together: trading territory worth billions for the inmate. Al-Megrahi was transported to Libya to live out his term; he had become the most expensive human being ever bought and sold, dearer than Diogenes or ElizabethTaylor. Petropounds lubricated the exchange. They also inaugurated Blair’s post-Downing Street career as dealmaker to dictators, a globe-trotting cross between Armand Hammer and Austin Powers.

BP batty bwoys: Blair and Qaddafi share secrets, 2007

Austin Powers (L) and Goldmember share their secrets, 2007

Subsequent prisoner transfer agreements have been similarly mercenary. But the cash has flowed the other way. Downing Street says that, in addition to Jamaica, “Compulsory transfer agreements are also in place with Albania, Nigeria, Somaliland, Rwanda, and Libya.” Except for Libya (where a once-respectable GDP has plummeted since the Royal Air Force’s little 2011 incursion) these are all poor countries. (Nigeria has oil but the per-capita GDP is barely one-fourth of what Libya’s was in 2007.) Cameron persuaded a paltry four impoverished nations to take their prisoners back, by paying them.

With some countries (particularly those where tiny prisoner contingents are involved) the effect can be achieved by dangling small amounts of apparently unrelated aid or benefits before the recipient government. With Nigeria, according to the Nigerian press, it involved a £3 million “annual fund to rehabilitate prisons.” This money wasn’t mentioned in the UK government’s announcement of the Nigerian deal (though the Daily Mail had indignantly warned of it long before); in fact, at least two years of payoffs, to facilitate Abuja’s acceptance of voluntary transfers, appear to have preceded the compulsory-transfer signing. The funding thus seems devoid of the monitoring mechanisms usual to bilateral aid programs. Given Nigeria’s high place on the global corruption index, it would be anybody’s guess where the cash wound up.

Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and Seychelles

Triangular trade: Map of Somali piracy, 2005-2010, showing major trade routes, Somalia (Somaliland is roughly the northwest panhandle of the country), and (lower left) Seychelles

Somaliland stands out on that list, because it isn’t a nation. It’s a breakaway region claiming independence from fragmented Somalia. The formerly British part of a country stitched together from British and Italian colonies, Somaliland runs a competent PR machine in London, apparently with enough cash to rent some would-be politicians. (UKIP is a great supporter of Somaliland’s contested statehood, as is Peter Tatchell.) But clearly it could use more. Its place on the roster has a complex backstory that unveils the colonial essence of the prisoner-transfer enterprise.

The deal traces back to Britain’s concern over piracy off Somalia’s coasts. That piracy, made immortal by a Tom Hanks movie, affected plenty of developed economies moving goods through the Suez Canal — by early this decade annual losses exceeded US$ 6 billion. But it took place in international waters, and none of the surrounding states were eager to prosecute captured pirates. Britain helped prevail on the Seychelles — a tiny island nation that was a UK colony from 1810 till 1976 — to take on the job.

Seychelles mainly contributed its name and territory; in “a scheme funded by the Foreign Office and the United Nations,” to the tune of £9 million from Cameron’s government, Britain then controlled the trials and the jails. The UK sent its own prosecutors. One struck the proper colonial note in a BBC interview, describing Somali captives as a “cheerful and reasonably intelligent lot.” The UK also built a maximum security prison — a “paradise” behind “15-ft high razor wire” that housed 100 Somalis by 2013 — and contributed its own warden. There were too many Somali convicts coming out of the courts for the facility to hold, however. So Britain also brokered a compulsory transfer agreement between Seychelles and Somaliland for the latter to absorb the overflow.

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Will Thurbin, former governor of an Isle of Wight prison, poses at Montagne Posse Prison in Seychelles with his dog Lucy, while Somali prisoners behind razor wire look on. Photo by Kate Holt for the Daily Mail

Somaliland thus opened a “pirate prison,” with £1 million from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (and presumably more from Britain); by 2012 it held 313 Somalis. Prisoners were shunted from shore to shore like backgammon counters. (A Brit working for UNODC in Seychelles joked to the BBC “that most Somalis are happy to be sent [to Somaliland] to escape the prison diet of rice and tuna.” In Somaliland, prisoners told the Guardian that “The food here is not good. We get rice, tomatoes and only a little bit of meat. In Seychelles the food was better.”)

Familiar colonial problems dogged the whole process. The British prosecutors knew no Somali nor Arabic; they couldn’t understand what the people they sent to prison were saying. “We didn’t have lawyers and we didn’t know the language,” a Somali inmate told the Guardian about his Seychelles trial, claiming he was merely fishing when gunboats arrested him. He got 10 years. A British barrister complained of “a marked inequality of resources between the prosecution and defence which was capable of producing injustice.” Moreover, flouting their basic rights, prisoners sent to Somaliland were stripped of any ability to appeal their convictions in Seychelles. But the point was, some pirates wound up behind bars, and piracy declined, and oil flowed through the Gulf of Aden. Seychelles was, of course, an old slave colony, familiar with involuntary transits. And Somaliland was desperate for official acknowledgement, and willing to sell itself as a prison camp to get it. (The head of Somaliland’s Anti-Piracy Taskforce “said the funding, and Somaliland’s increasing usefulness in the fight against piracy, would help the enclave’s bid for international recognition of its independence.”) Exploiting these two weak and dependent territories, Britain built a regional economy of prisoner transfers around its own needs. It was like a miniscule Indian Ocean version of the Atlantic triangular trade.

Inmates at the Hargeisa

Inmates at the Hargeisa “pirate’s prison” in Somaliland, 2012. Photo by Tony Karumba for AFP/Getty Images

WIth all this going on elsewhere in the world, Jamaica knew there was money in the prisoner-transfer business, and drove a hard bargain. The deal Cameron announced had been in the works since at least 2007; but it’s easy to infer that, as Kingston saw other countries profiting, its own price went up. Britain paid to import chained humans to its territories for several centuries. There’s a certain justice that, as the whirligig of capital brings round its revenges, it must now pay to export them. Of course, for the humans in question, “justice” may not be the right word.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

One thing must be clear. Bilateral aid to improve developing countries’ prison systems should be a good, needed thing. People who claim aid must focus on “nice” projects like schools or hospitals ignore the fact that prisoners have needs and rights — rights that governments disdain and deny. Suggestions (by the PNP’s youth league, for instance) that foreign donors should leave prisons alone adumbrate a dangerous nationalist antagonism to human rights altogether.

But whom will Britain’s Jamaica project help? To begin with, you have to note that the UK’s attitudes toward foreign prisons are hopelessly discordant. When it’s a question of a British citizen incarcerated abroad, those places are primitive hells — “terrifyingly alien,” a barrister wrote of Jamaican jails; “the cells are the size of a  typical one-car garage.” When it’s a question of shipping a non-citizen back to his homeland’s prisons, those receptacles are fine, fine. Torture? What torture? As Dominic Raab said, it’s horribly wrong when “We have innocent British citizens being carted off … to face flawed justice systems or gruesome jails abroad. But we can’t send foreign gangsters back home.” In other words, surprise! — Britons worry about prisons abroad when it suits their interests.

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women's prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

Fort Augusta Adult Correctional Centre, a women’s prison near Kingston, Jamaica. Photo by the Gleaner

There are deep human rights problems in Jamaica’s prisons. The country has an incarceration rate about the same as England and Wales (a third of Russia’s, a quarter of the United States’); but the system is teeming and ill-maintained.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared in 2012 that “Detention and prison conditions in Jamaica are generally very poor primarily due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of sufficient medical care.” A 2010 investigation by the UN special rapporteur on torture determined the country’s two main prisons “are not suitable for modern correctional purposes, including rehabilitation and re-socialization.”

But here’s the problem. Every country wants a prison system because every country thinks it’s the answer: to crime, to excess population, to immorality or poverty. But nobody wants to pay for it it. It’s true in the US, in the UK, and in Jamaica. There is no constituency in Jamaica for spending tax money to improve prisons, or aid money for that matter. (The current government has dabbled with bringing in private, for-profit prison corporations, but couldn’t find a taker.) Part of popular mythology around prisons in Jamaica is that they’re too luxurious, not harsh or primitive enough, lenient leisure clubs that drain men of manhood and leave them batty bwoys. Real abuses like rape that make imprisonment unendurable instead become the spoor of pampering. Clovis, the notoriously homophobic cartoonist for the Jamaica Observer, rams home the point:

(L) A child sees his father's killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says

(L) A child sees his father’s killer embracing another man in a prison cell, while an official says “Put convicts to work!” (M) Vybz Kartel, the dancehall artist convicted of murder– famous for his “effeminate” ointment-bleached skin — is dragged to prison. (R) A perpetrator of domestic violence gets his desserts.

(It’s sobering to compare this with the UN expert’s report: “Homosexuals detained at St. Catherine and Tower Street correctional centres were held in the ‘vulnerable persons unit’ as a protective measure. However, their separation led to a loss of privileges of a punitive character, such as work and recreation, including the use of the library and playing field. In the security section in the Tower Street centre, detainees were locked up in dark, solitary cells without a toilet or water, and had nobody to call for help.”)

It’s improbable that the UK money will do anything to change overall prison conditions in Jamaica, much less the beliefs and policies that produce them. It’s not meant to. At best, Cameron’s bargain will create a two-tier prison system: lucky UK exports will enjoy the cutting-edge prison’s comparative comforts, along with privileged dons and barons who can pay for it, while everyone else swelters in the old inferno. And this is fine with Britain. Given the UK’s desperation to slough off unwanted inmates, there’s little chance they’ll seriously inspect even the new facility’s standards. It’s fine with Jamaica too. Already the government is talking about this not as a rights issue, but a real estate one: the possible superannuation of one old penitentiary means that “Downtown Kingston will have the opportunity for a large redevelopment on the 30 acres of waterfront land now occupied by the prison,” the National Security Ministry told the press. “A similar opportunity for redevelopment would be provided in Spanish Town.”

Spanish Town Adult Correctional Facility, Kingston. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

St. Catherine Adult Correctional Facility, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Photo by Jermaine Barnaby for the Gleaner

This is a story about commodities. It’s a very contemporary one. When people lose their freedom and their rights, they become objects; but under triumphant capitalism, an object can only be a commodity, must bear a price. These days, the unfree are destined to be bought and sold.

The UK is building a market in prisoners; it exports the problem of prison to other states, and pays them to take it. The idea of the price of individual prisoners permeates the discourse. “The average annual cost of a prison place in the UK is £25,900,” Downing Street declares. The Daily Mail envisions a more upscale product, like free-range chickens, and pegs them at “around £40,000 a year.” The aggregate numbers are what counts in interstate relations — the “£25 million a year to keep 850 foreign prisoners behind bars,” the “£35 million every year” spent “locking up Poles” who strayed our way — but the single prisoner remains the nominal unit of exchange, like the lone dollar or pound whose abstract value in its minute oscillations can set unimaginably vast capital flows in motion.

Fear of an actual planet

Fear of an actual planet

Yet this is the nativist language of an economy in recession. The UK’s reasoning is clear: if we have to spend that much on prisoners, which we don’t want to, let’s spend it on our own, not foreigners. “Deporting foreign criminals would free up prison places,” says a UKIP politician, letting us abuse and humiliate more of our own kind. There’s no reason the logic should stop there, though. Already the UK is figuring out ways to scrap the formality of a trial; Cameron’s government has come up with “Operation Nexus,” to simplify deporting foreigners charged with crimes but not convicted. And isn’t there a deeply buried message: Look. We would deport our own citizens if we could. Can a mere ID deter ostracism and eviction? With a West desperate to export crime and get rid of immigrants, why is birthright belonging more than a friable, disposable defense? Donald Trump already wants to scrap it. If the UK could find a penal colony, a Botany Bay, to take its suspect and unwanted nationals, how long would it cling to them over legal sentimentalities? As non-citizens become criminals, an insidious mirroring begins; the possibility — the fissure — of turning criminals into non-citizens opened, after September 11. The United States now can kill its own nationals without trial. It can pry in their doings as if they all were foreign spies. Correspondingly, zones of statelessness are starting to spring up, like weeds in the cracks of a formerly seamless planet. Guantanamo was the first, but not the last. Somaliland “enjoys relative peace and stability,” writes Reuters, parroting its Cameronland informants, “and analysts hope it might be a good site for more incarcerations in the future.” There you go — “peace and stability” now simply mark out promising lands for prisons, the way a geologist looks at a glittering slope of schist and sees oil. But the analysts don’t come to Somaliland for the quiet. Its draw is that it’s not a state; human rights treaties and duties don’t apply. Because such places are, in a global sense, lawless, states can set up laboratories there to make their own law. It’s not so much the fact that such small, silent interstices are appearing, in a world that used to talk of legality and freedom. It’s the fear that in those interspersed crevices and ruptures, our terrifying future is being born.

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

Slaves working in the field in Jamaica: Early 19th-century print

No one likes to talk about the links between slavery and prisons, but they are real. Both Michelle Alexander and Loïc Wacquant show how the modern prison in America grew in response to the formal abolition of involuntary servitude; the reality and constant threat of incarceration forged new psychological as well as legal shackles around an ostensibly liberated population. The prison shared — and shares — many features with the model case of human slavery in the 20th century, the Nazi concentration camp. Here’s something I read recently that chilled me.

In the American South after the Civil War black convict labourers, leased out for dangerous, back-breaking work and subject to summary punishment and execution, sometimes had a mortality rate as high as 50 per cent in certain states. … Mortality among the tiny minority of white prisoners was around 2 per cent.

A 50% mortality rate for the imprisoned is roughly the rate for Hitler’s work camps (as opposed to the pure death camps, like Sobibór or Treblinka). The Gulag’s death toll, for example, was only half that. The enslavement of the human being; his reduction to a rightsless cipher; her extermination once her economic use was exhausted — these are extreme cases, absolutely not typical of all incarceration. But they’re possibilities inextricably latent in the modern prison: because buried under the prison is the slave camp.

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

Chain-gang prisoners working on a railroad, Asheville, NC, undated photo (late 19th or early 20th century)

What we’re seeing now is twofold. Imprisonment is no longer a reserve away from the economy where the unproductive can be shunted; it’s completely economized. And the prison economy is going international. This traffic in chained bodies is growing. It resuscitates the authority structures of colonial slavery with new legal forms, purposes, and names. It’s frightening to see even a few of the old slave-trade routes revived like grass-grown oxen tracks, running from Britain to Jamaica or the Bight of Benin, from the Indian Ocean islands to the East African coast — though sometimes the shackled people are borne in directions opposite to the map’s faded arrows.

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Alleged Somali pirates in a prison in Berbera, Somaliland, in 2011. Photo by Kabir Dhanji for NPR

Hilary Beckles, the chair of Caricom’s Reparations Committee (and vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies) published an open letter before Cameron’s arrival in Jamaica. It cited how the prime minister’s own clan had profited from Britain’s slave economy; in the 19th century, Cameron’s distant relations owned 202 slaves in Jamaica. Beckles wrote:

You owe it to us as you return here to communicate a commitment to reparatory justice that will enable your nation to play its part in cleaning up this monumental mess of Empire. We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal.

Cameron rejected all such calls. Jamaica, he told its parliament, should “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.”

But how? It’s Cameron whose state policies summon the ghosts of the traffic in human lives. The only future that lies that way is inhuman.

Stereoscope slide marked

Stereoscope slide marked “Sugar Cane field hands, Montego bay, Jamaica, 1900,” from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/slavery/resource12c.htm. Although Jamaican slavery was abolished almost seven decades earlier, the conditions of plantation work were largely unchanged.

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Living in truth: Chelsea Manning in prison

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Chelsea Manning in happier days, in male drag

Little more than a week after the brutal liquidation of the brave Cameroonian gay activist Eric Ohena Lembembe this July, a trans* woman was killed in Barranquilla, Colombia. Wizy Romero was 21, a community activist “widely known for her leadership in the barrio and district,” especially in sports. While she chatted with friends in the street on the night of July 23, two men on a motorcycle shot her dead. It was the eleventh known murder of an LGBT person in the Caribbean region of the country since the year began.

A few days before Lembembe’s murder, on July 10, friends found a trans* woman’s body at her home in Kuşadası, Turkey: circumstances much like the discovery of Lembembe’s slaughter. An unknown assailant had stabbed Dora Özer to death. Violence aganst trans* people is epidemic across Turkey.  “Every year a few of my friends get killed,” one activist, remembering Dora, said. “I often think of the question, ‘when will my friends hear about my death?’ Saying this is very painful. But I don’t even know one transsexual who died of natural causes.”

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

Dora Özer, murdered July 9, 2013

On July 22, just days after Lembembe’s killing, Jamaican police in Irwin, near Montego Bay, discovered the mutilated body of a 16-year-old whose identity papers said  “Dwayne Jones.” The story, as slowly reconstructed, was typical of trans* and non-conforming youth in many places. The father threw the child out of the house at 14 for “effeminacy”; the community drove Dwayne out of the neighborhood. Dwayne had gone to a street party dressed as a girl. A crowd chased the child into the street, stabbed her and shot her, till she died after two hours of multiple attacks.  They beat and tried to rape an older trans* friend who was with her; she managed to escape.

People mourned, condemned, protested Eric Ohena Lembembe’s death around the world. Nobody much noticed Wizy Romero’s or Dora Özer’s killings. Human Rights Watch produced a press release on the murder of Dwayne Jones. The contrast with their response to Ohena Lemembe’s killing is instructive. They invited you to take the crime against Eric personally. His murder evoked tributes to his character: “Advocating for equal rights in Cameroon, where LGBTI people face severe discrimination and violence, takes tremendous courage,” the organization said. ” Dwayne was depersonalized. Nothing suggested the heroic individuality of a 16-year-old who braved the cruel streets as herself, not a cipher; she blurred into a lesson for “Jamaican authorities,” who  “need to send an unequivocal message that there will be zero tolerance for violence” against all “LGBT people.” (By contrast, the Associated Press was able to speak to Dwayne’s friends and “humanize” her, though they still referred to “him.”)

A murdered gay man is a symbol. A murdered trans* woman is a symptom.

Amnesty International also wrote about Dwayne’s killing. In a blog post, they described her as “gay” in pointing to the larger lesson: “Gay people’s rights in the Caribbean have to be respected.” Like Human Rights Watch, they said “he was cross-dressing” — an irritating term implying mere fashion choices at cross-purposes with the person’s genital-given gender, which is inescapable. We don’t in fact know whether Jones saw herself as mainly male or female at the time of the murder, but HRW and Amnesty make the decision for her. Eric Ohena Lembembe’s friends remembered him in death. Dwayne Jones’ advocates erased her.

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin's Russia

Known murders of trans* people in 57 countries in five years: from http://www.transrespect-transphobia.org/en_US/tvt-project/tmm-results/march-2013.htm. Note high numbers for the entirely free US as opposed to tyrannical Putin’s Russia.

I thought of this in the dramas yesterday around Bradley Manning’s sentencing. Let’s call her “him,” and “Bradley,” in this paragraph for the last time. Manning received 35 years in military prison on various charges, “including violations of the Espionage Act, for copying and disseminating classified military field reports, State Department cables, and assessments of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” He’d been acquitted of the simultaneously most serious and ridiculous charge, “aiding the enemy,” but in the end this didn’t seem to matter. In fact, the symbolic message of the sentence (everything has a “lesson” these days) was that spreading information is abominable even if it doesn’t aid some enemy. Silence is life, silence is breath. Silence is a value for its own sake. Gays in uniform or no, the military’s mantra remains: Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

The long prison term is likely to hearten national security officials who have been rattled by the subsequent leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Manning’s conviction might also encourage the government to bring charges against the man who was instrumental in the publication of the documents, Julian Assange.

You can read Manning’s statement after sentencing here. “In in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy,” Manning wrote, “we have forgotten our humanity.”

We consciously elected to devalue human life … When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

“Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society,” Manning said.

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

Manning being escorted from courthouse after a sentencing hearing, August 20, 2013, Fort Meade, MD

A day later, Manning’s lawyer read another statement from the prisoner on TV.

I want to thank everybody who has supported me over the last three years. Throughout this long ordeal, your letters of support and encouragement have helped keep me strong. … As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).

The prosecution painted Manning as a “narcissist” during the trial: apolitical, unconstrained by responsibility to society. (“I only wanted to help people,” Manning said after sentencing.  “When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.”) Thus it’s predictable how her coming out as trans* is playing today. She’s just selfish, trivializing her own claims to higher purpose, and chasing the will-o’-the-wisp of sick fantasy to boot. “So Manning wants to live as a woman,” looney Laura Ingraham tweeted. “Let me guess, we have to pay for it.” Then there’s Adam Baldwin. I don’t know why we should care how Adam Baldwin addresses this or any other issue, but his avatar predicts his answer:

Adam Baldwin. "American Individual. Amiable Skeptic." Male impersonator.

Adam Baldwin. “American Individual. Amiable Skeptic.” Male impersonator.

GayWorld’s reaction will also be interesting to behold.

That Manning’s gender identity was ambiguous, and that she might prefer to be identified by it rather than as “gay,” was no secret. The information’s been out there for years. Living (like many closeted people these days) a fuller life online than in the physical world, she’d come to trust Adrian Lamo, a well-known hacker, in the months before her arrest. Lamo published their chats after he turned Manning in for whistleblowing. Manning wrote him that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed, so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me … plastered all over the world press … as [a] boy.” Military doctors later leaked to the press that the soldier considered herself female, and a few voices referred to her as a “transgender hero.”

There may not have been enough information for supporters to affirm unequivocally that Manning was trans*: but there was certainly an ambiguity demanding to be respected. Yet it was effectively covered up.  As Emily Manuel wrote in late 2011, the media, and many if hardly all Manning’s supporters

continue to refer to her as male  (for instance, this Glenn Greenwald segment on Democracy Now  still using male pronouns, and still conflating gay and transgender, or Michael Moore’s steady stream of supportive tweets and blog posts).  But at what point will progressive media, those who are at least pay lip service to the idea of being LGBT allies, decide to respect the most likely scenario of Manning’s preferred gender ID?

Several things showed here, not least Manning’s defense team’s fear that, if homophobia in the military was slowly ebbing, transphobia remained rife. To admit a trans identity would alienate the court. It would suggest she was a double traitor, not just a leaker but an undercover woman in a masculinity-obsessed institution: a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a she in warrior’s clothes. Manning, unlike the information she revealed, had to stay behind the veil.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007.  Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

Manly men keep other men in their crosshairs: Frame from a video (released to WikiLeaks by Manning) shot by a US Army Apache helicopter shows civilians on an eastern Baghdad street, July 12, 2007. Subtitle at bottom is dialogue within the helicopter. Moments later the gunship opened fire, killing eight, including two journalists.

There’s something else, though. As Manuel wrote, “Why do we assume that ‘hero’ and ‘transgender’ are mutually exclusive, and are unwilling or unable to imagine rallying around a transgender woman rather than a bright-faced young man?” As the stories I told above show, a gay man murdered means courage. Trans women murdered can quickly be forgotten. Some of Manning’s defenders found it far easier to describe a brave “he” in uniform.

Mentioning gender identity became the province of those who smeared her, like the dreadful Jamie Kirchick. “Manning is gay and reportedly suffered from gender identity disorder, at one point adopting a female alter ego,” Kirchick noted in Out magazine. Why being a woman should be an “alter ego,” except to Jamie’s ego, is anybody’s guess. But: “Bradley Manning is no gay hero,” Kirchick concluded. Pointing to Manning’s femininity helped Jamie undermine both descriptions, and unsettle the “many gay activists” who refused to “condemn him as the traitor he is.” 

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

They also serve who only stand and Tweet

There’s a longer history here, though: a twinned history of gay men dominating the movements, and of activists dictating to subalterns whom they won’t let speak for themselves. Peter Tatchell has, typically, been particularly militant in demanding that Manning accept the identity assigned to her. “Bradley Manning is openly gay,” he declared; “he has participated in Pride marches” — something trans* folks apparently never do. Tatchell urged people to send messages to “the gay military whistle-blower” (if Manning feared having her image plastered over the Internet “as [a] boy,” she might perhaps have been still more alarmed to get thousands of missives addressing her as “gay”). Tatchell continued proclaiming this till the morning she announced her trans* identity. (As usual, when questioned on his facts, Tatchell goes — no pun intended — ballistic; when I pointed out the ambiguities some months ago, he accused me on e-mail of “factually inaccurate, sectarian smears.”)

But Peter has a long record of deciding how people should identify themselves, regardless of how they actually do. In some cases, he picks on the dead, like Whitney Houston. In some cases, it’s the living; his insistence that certain Iranians were “actually” gay (while, being in prison, they couldn’t address the question in person) has probably contributed to the killing of at least one victim. In 2010, when Malawi charged a couple, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, with “unnatural acts” under its sodomy law, Tatchell intruded in the case. His stream of press releases cemented their depiction as “gay” and a “same-sex couple,” even though it was clear to most people that Tiwonge didn’t identify as a man. Gender identity is an undefined area in Malawian law. If a court could have been persuaded that Tiwonge’s gender identity made them an opposite-sex couple, there was a slight chance they might have gone free. Instead, aided by Tatchell’s publicity and aversion to trans* identity, they got 14 years.

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission carries a sign, 'Tiwonge is a Trans Woman," May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his gay message was disrespected, "Peter Tatchell was unable to attend." http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

Getting it right, but a bit late: Protester at the Malawi High Commission in London carries a sign, ‘Tiwonge is a Trans Woman,” May 29, 2010. Perhaps because his all-gay message was disrespected, “Peter Tatchell was unable to attend.” http://www.demotix.com/news/341347/malawi-high-commission-protest-london#media-341341

In other words, GayWorld’s fear of a trans* corner of the planet has consequences. 

Manning’s gender identity came to the fore only at trial’s end, in the sentencing phase. Then her attorneys introduced it, to prove she was “confused” and troubled in the lead-up to the leaking. In no way do I criticize anything the defense said to mitigate Manning’s punishment in an unjust, torturous system. They were doing their best for her, though it does demonstrate that lawyers don’t have the last word about a person’s selfhood, any more than human rights activists do. But the strategy invited the court to see Manning’s gender issues as an illness — and the attendant media seized the opportunity.

Pretty much all the press coverage of Manning’s sentencing treats gender identity as disease. It’s a sickening boost to the worst transphobia. The Guardian, in the UK, throws the book at him. “The odds were stacked against Manning before he was even born … he had characteristics of an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.” Manning “was still only being fed baby food when he was two years old.” But all these oddities build up to the Real Enchilada, or lack of it, which is her failure to be a man. “An email Manning sent his sergeant, containing a picture of himself in a wig, dressed as his female alter ego [again!], Breanna, gave some insight into his motives.” Does it? What I can’t comprehend is why somebody so infantile, so Dr.-Phil simple, so anxious to return to (and turn himself into) the womb, would do anything so adult — so inimical to childish comfort — so conscious of and caring toward the outside world, as noticing his country’s criminality and leaking a whole slew of highly political information. It’s as if a baby in a Pampers commercial started spouting Shakespeare. Could it be they have Manning and her manliness all wrong?

Military psychologists examined Manning three times, as Kevin Gosztola summarizes. 

His therapist in Iraq, Cpt. Michael Worsley, diagnosed him with GID [“gender identity disorder”] after he opened up to him in May 2010. The sanity board that reviewed whether he was fit to stand trial diagnosed him with GID in April 2011. And the forensic psychologist, who was tasked with reviewing Manning’s records for the defense, Navy Captain David Moulton, diagnosed him with GID and found that to be the primary disorder of which he was suffering.

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and "Gender Identity Disorder," 2009

Keep your laws off my body and your labels off my mind: Protest against American Psychiatric Association and “Gender Identity Disorder,” 2009

Let’s be clear. This suggests that Manning was under stress, and sustained a strong view of her own gender. None of it indicates that she had “gender identity disorder.” “Gender identity disorder” doesn’t exist. Indeed, the belief that categories in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual have some independent existence in reality, aside from psychologists’ use of them to place patients in convenient pigeonholes, is a myth on the order of supposing that medieval lists of angels’ names prove that heavenly beings perched on the roofs of Notre Dame back in the fourteenth century. What all this diagnosing demonstrates is that the US military has a primitive understanding of gender. “Gender identity disorder” (more recently called “gender dysphoria”) is a disease invented by the psychological profession out of a peculiar, mid-last-century confidence that doctors had a fix for everything: that people whose sense of self wasn’t at one with their biological sex were sick, and that medicine or surgery could cure them. Trans* people have found this diagnosis useful at times, to get medical care when none was otherwise available, and to access medical procedures they need. For the most part, though, the “disorder” has malignly pathologized gender itself as a sickness: if you actually think your self and your sex are different, there’s something wrong with you. By this standard, Plato, Joan of Arc, and Judith Butler are all as dysphoric as Bradley Manning. Shock therapy for all of us!

Anyone who’s ever dealt with psychologists knows that you can get them to say anything, particularly if paid. The last of Manning’s examiners, Captain Moulton, was particularly febrile in his rhetoric.

Repeating a diagnosis made famous by the 1995 film “Clueless,” a forensic psychiatrist testifying in defense of Pfc. Bradley Manning on Wednesday emphasized that the WikiLeaks source was in a “post-adolescent idealistic phase.” The phrase is unrecognized in clinical psychiatry. “It’s a period of time when people are more focused on, become focused on making a difference in the world, societal changes, things like that,” Navy Capt. David Moulton testified. …

Turning to this case, the doctor surmised: “Pfc. Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was really going to change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars actually.”  This thinking was unavoidable in Manning’s “post-adolescent … little world,” Moulton said.

Mandela and Martin Luther King also suffered from deluded post-adolescent regression, then, and would probably be played by Alicia Silverstone in the movie. Of course, Manning’s leaked information really did change “how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a minor detail, but that doesn’t make him any less crazy for focusing on “societal changes” and things like that! Jesus Christ, what kind of fucking world do you want? You want to live in some fucked-up suburb of BizarroLand where any teenage loser thinks he can make a difference, instead of worrying about what really matters, playing football and praying to Tim Tebow and keeping his balls out the claws of Jerry Sandusky? And fuck Jesus Christ while you’re at it. He was a “post-adolescent” too.

Holy writ: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Holy writ, wholly shit: Against the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual

Fine, they adduced all this crap in an effort to spare Manning jail time. Given that the trial and the whole national security system are run by lunatics, the best you can probably do for some lost idealist caught in their paranoid webs is to pretend he’s a lunatic too. That doesn’t mean, though, that the rest of us have to believe it. As another psychiatrist remarked to the press, “Tagging a ‘pseudo-diagnostic’ string of polysyllables on a defendant’s behavior is a common practice in court proceedings.” And he added, “Many young people are idealistic, but so are many older people.” (Idealism in the old is called “Alzheimer’s,” and that drooling nursing-home inmate Mahatma Gandhi is a fine Dr. Oz example.)  “Gender identity disorder” is only more slab of crap, nine more syllables of this garbage jargon. Anybody who truly believes it, or thinks this language gropes up out of its garbage can to hold a mirror to a reality, and that this reality somehow bears on Chelsea Manning, has a dysphoria of his own, which is beyond treatment.

I have a different understanding of Chelsea Manning.

484
I lived in Eastern Europe for six years just after the 1989 revolutions. I read Vaclav Havel obsessively, mostly while travelling with Romanian friends on slow and decrepit trains. In “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay I once almost knew by heart, Havel describes a greengrocer who regularly “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!'”

That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.

But what if, one day, that combination of conformity with an unspoken, underlying fear gives way? Even the powerless can act, if only in negation. Imagine:

Something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. … He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth. …

[T]he power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.

There, not in the shrinks’ reports, is the record of what Manning has done. And her personal ordeal not only runs parallel to her political one, but is inseparable from it. Her whistleblowing and her coming out are each a journey toward life in truth. It’s hard to imagine the first happening without the second.

Miroslav Hucek, "Mr. Makovička' s Wings," photograph, Prague, 1972

Miroslav Hucek, “Mr. Makovička’ s Wings,” photograph, Prague, 1972

I can already hear GayWorld’s Jamie Kirchicks spluttering in complaint: How can you compare a … a cross-dresser and a traitor to Vaclav Havel, to Angelina Jolie, to Tom Cruise playing Claus von Stauffenberg, to our saints and role models?

But it was an ordinary greengrocer Havel described resisting, not a saint. His point was that the powerless have the power to live in truth and to say no: not soldiers, not athletes, not celebrities, not people with perfect childhoods and perfect teeth. Manning is a true dissident and a true heavyweight because she wasn’t born to be one. Being a hero, like being a woman, is part of her becoming.

Bravery has something to do with suffering; and, as Theodor Fontane wrote, “True heroism, contrary to military heroism, is always bound up with insults and contempt.” It’s interesting to compare Manning’s heroism to incidents in the recent career of Jamie Kirchick. Kirchick was all over the Web in recent days because, invited to Russia Today’s Stockholm studio to discuss the Manning sentence, he instead went into an on-air rant over Putin’s anti-gay laws. It makes for interesting TV; Kirchick impersonates morality convincingly. But from GayWorld’s hysterical reaction, you might suppose he was Solzhenitsyn scribbling in the Gulag, or a lone soldier standing up to Mongol hordes. “The best word to describe this man: BRAVE! WTG!!!!” one comment gushed. And famous person Stephen Fry tweeted“Truly magnificent! Articulate, passionate, brave and JUST what is needed. Three cheers to James!!!!”

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

Clark Kent in rainbow suspenders: Young Kirchick confronts the evil minions of Mr. Mxyzptlksky

What these innocents neglect, of course, is that Kirchick drew fleeting attention to the persecution of LGBT people in Russia — but only by derailing a discussion of a persecuted trans* person in the United States. So much for striking a blow for LGBT rights! “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning,” Jamie began. And of course, Kirchick cared rather less about dissing the Russians than about defending America’s stained virtue. He was eager to stop listeners from learning about Manning’s torture and Manning’s sentence, because Kirchick believes the pervert got off light

What’s most distasteful is the preening praise for Kirchick’s “bravery.” No one menaced him in the Russia Today studio; his only suffering came when they tried to cancel his paid car service to the airport. Kirchick loves to dream of a military heroism that both prudence and reality deny him, which perhaps accounts for why he hates Manning. Famously, Jamie once imagined an all-gay unit in the US army, mandated to take out Muslims and vindicate the Kirchick masculinity in the process: a Village People fantasy where “Taliban fighters” would bite the dust at the hands of “warrior homosexuals.” This macho wet dream was notable only in that Kirchick himself played no part in it. The longed-for vindication was vicarious. Jamie never enlisted in anything. The kid has bellicose reveries of being a he-man (he likes to call himself “JK-47”), but, a classic chickenhawk, he has never served in any army. So far as I can see he’s done little that’s brave, in any real sense, in his life. When he merely repeats the things that millions are saying, though, he gets applauded for a fake, factitious courage that’s lacks both risk and substance. 

We're in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? AWOL from the gay brigade

We’re in Jalalabad, and where is Jamie? The lonesome gay brigade

While Jamie goes viral, Chelsea Manning goes to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, to start serving a 35-year sentence. This is bravery.

Manning has already undergone inhuman treatment in pre-trial detention. For 11 months she was held in extreme solitary confinement, a purely vengeful measure. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned the cruelty, noting that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.” (The judge struck 112 days from Manning’s sentence in acknowledgement of “unlawful pre-trial punishment,” a curious and risible compensation for her suffering.) Now, with her trans* identity a matter of public knowledge, she can reasonably expect the abuse redoubled.

US_incarceration_timeline-clean-fixed-timescale.svg
More than almost any country in modern history, the US relies on prisons as its primary means of social control. Its incarceration rate is the world’s highest (almost 40% higher than the Russia Jamie Kirchick hates). The values of violence, secrecy, and masculinity that Manning rejected rule our prisons, distilled, intensified, and concentrated. Gender policing may be the most constant form of authority. It’s how the prison population is led to regulate itself; its norms are enforced by guards, guns, and the whole official hierarchy.

Rape is ubiquitous, meted out on those who are too weak or can’t conform. T. J. Parsell was thrown in an adult prison because, as a 17-year-old, he stole $53 from a photo store with a toy gun.

On my first day there — the same day that my classmates were getting ready for the prom — a group of older inmates spiked my drink, lured me down to a cell and raped me. And that was just the beginning. Laughing, they bragged about their conquest and flipped a coin to see which one of them got to keep me. For the remainder of my nearly five-year sentence, I was the property of another inmate.

That’s only one among thousands of stories of prison rape. No one knows the exact figures; most inmates who suffer sexual abuse won’t, or can’t, report it. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” takes on its most malign meaning here. And rape is only one of the punishments dealt to the vulnerable and exposed.

Trans* inmates are among the worst abused. “Gay and transgender inmates are perhaps the hardest hit by sexual violence in custody,” the advocacy group Stop Prisoner Rape declared in 2006.

A study of one institution reported that 41 percent of gay inmates had been sexually assaulted, a rate that was three times higher than that for the institution overall. … Contributing to the heightened risk that gay and transgender inmates face are the reckless and indiscriminate classification practices that most facilities continue to use. For example, transgender inmates are often automatically placed either in protective custody with few opportunities to participate in prison programs, or with the general population without regard to their unique needs and physical appearance.

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Harassment of trans* prisoners: From a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, http://www.thetaskforce.org/downloads/reports/reports/ntds_full.pdf

Nobody knows what conditions will face Manning in Fort Leavenworth. What’s certain is that her gender identity won’t be taken into account in placing her: she’ll be shunted into a men’s ward. If there’s abuse or violence from inmates, solitary confinement — a form of punishment, not protection — is likely to be the authorities’ only answer. She’s asked for medical assistance. It won’t be granted. “The Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery for gender identity disorder,” a Fort Leavenworth spokesman told the press. Some courts have begun to mandate giving such care to trans* prisoners in some state institutions, but the decisions are still on appeal. It will be a long time before a precedent reaches the Federal prison system, or before it does any good for Chelsea Manning. (The US has 51 prison systems, in effect: one for each of the States, and a Federal one for people convicted under national law, like Manning. A detailed fact sheet on trans* rights in US prisons has been assembled by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.)

It’s important to speak out for Manning over the coming years. It’s important to call her trans*. Erasing the identity Manning expressed only reinforces the silence she sought to undo — and anticipates the violence she’ll face in prison. Fighting for trans* people’s safety within the prison-industrial complex may be the best way to fight for Manning now. The National Center for Transgender Equality has recommendations for trans* rights in Federal prisons here. To summarize:

  • Access to Healthcare. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons guarantee trans* prisoners all medically necessary health care, including therapy and surgery for their transitions.
  • Classification of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons  issue policies on the placement of trans* prisoners that take strongly into account each person’s self-identification, as well as his or her safety.
  • Safe Housing of Prisoners. Demand that the Federal Bureau of Prisons develop measures to protect the physical safety of trans* inmates, without relying on automatic segregation, isolation, or solitary confinement.
  • Prison Rape Elimination Act Regulations. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, and the Prison Rape Elimination Commission which it created has proposed standards to protect trans* people. Demand that the Attorney General act on these to safeguard trans* Federal prisoners from sexual assault.

Stop Prisoner Rape, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the TGI Justice Project, and the Transgender Law Center are among the organizations working on trans* prisoners’ rights, and they need your support. Critical Resistance and End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) are resources on prison abolition.

Chelsea Manning has asked for mail from her supporters. She can be written at:

Bradley E. Manning
89289
1300 N. Warehouse Road
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
66027-2304

It’s one of the system’s first indignities that the envelopes must read “Bradley Manning” for them to be delivered. In the inside text, though, letters should address her as Chelsea.

NOTE: A commenter points out that Dora Özer’s murder was hardly ignored by everybody: it led to protests by sex worker activists worldwide. See http://jasmineanddora.wordpress.com/. This still points, though, to the grim divide between sex worker movements and LGB ( and a few T) activists, who don’t give a damn about sex workers in their own community, much less about the principles involved. They just don’t get the intersections or why issues of sexual freedom cut across identities and practices. That’s disgraceful. And it’s a post and a history in itself.

 (I am especially grateful to the members of the Real Pride, Real Issues coalition in San Francisco, whose members have kept up the pressure on SF Pride for its disgraceful abandonment of Manning, and whose Google group is a constant source of information.) 

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge Bradley Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Vindicating the honor of the tribe: A huge pro-Manning continent marches in San Francisco Pride, June 30, 2013

Cameron’s “imperial mentality”: A Caribbean perspective

Gifford (second from R) with J-FLAG activists in a 2010 Kingston protest

Watch this video, from Jamaican TV, of an interview with British – Jamaican human rights lawyer Lord Anthony Gifford. As a strong supporter of scrapping Jamaica’s sodomy law, he lays out the arguments against the UK’s noisy and confused promises to tie development aid to LGBT rights.

He’s right that open threats to Jamaica from abroad almost always create a “converse reaction.” But one thing I find troubling is his blanket claim that Jamaica, as a democracy, is in a different class from dictatorships, and can work this out for itself.  “To use this stick against a democracy like Jamaica –we are capable of having this debate within Jamaica … and I think it’s counterproductive.” How exactly does this differ from arguments that Israel supporters (including one of Human RIghts Watch’s founders) use to contend that human rights activists should leave the country alone?

Thirty years ago, Gifford was lead counsel for the plaintiff in the landmark case of Dudgeon v United Kingdom, where the European Court of Human Rights compelled Britain to eliminate Northern Ireland’s sodomy law. And the video below shows  Gifford and my activist friends Maurice Tomlinson and Yvonne McCalla Sobers discussing their new challenge to the Jamaican law before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: