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Bradley Manning's Prison Hell

By Denver Nicks

19 December, 2010
The Daily Beast

Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked hundreds of thousands of secret government documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, turns 23 in jail Friday. The Daily Beast’s Denver Nicks, in an exclusive interview with Manning’s attorney, reports on his solitary confinement, what he’s reading (from George W. Bush to Howard Zinn), and his legal strategy.

The last time Bradley Manning saw the world outside of a jail, most Americans had never heard of WikiLeaks. On Friday, Manning, the man whose alleged unauthorized release of hundreds of thousands of classified documents put the website and its controversial leader, Julian Assange, on the map, turns 23 behind bars. Since his arrest in May, Manning has spent most of his 200-plus days in solitary confinement. Other than receiving a card and some books from his family, his birthday will be no different. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, his attorney, David Coombs, revealed key details about Manning’s imprisonment and kind gestures from his family that provided a bit of comfort in the inmate's otherwise extremely harsh incarceration.

"They’re thinking about him on his birthday, that they love and support him," Coombs said of Manning's family and the card his mother, father, sister and aunt passed along via the lawyer on Wednesday. "They wish they could be with him on his day, but they are not allowed because visitation is only on Saturday and Sunday, and a family member would be going down to see him on Saturday." Coombs passed a message to Manning from his aunt on behalf of the family; Manning, the lawyer says, asked Coombs to tell his aunt he loved her and wishes he could be with her as well.

Manning asked for a list of books, which his family bought for him and will be delivered over the next few weeks to coincide with his birthday and Christmas. On the list?

• Decision Points, by George W. Bush
• Critique of Practical Reason, by Immanuel Kant
• Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant
• Propaganda, by Edward Bernays
• The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
• A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
• The Art of War, by Sun Tzu
• The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel
• On War by Gen. Carl von Clausewitz

Manning is being held at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. He spends 23 hours a day alone in a standard-sized cell, with a sink, a toilet, and a bed. He isn’t allowed sheets or a pillow, though First Lieutenant Brian Villiard, an officer at Quantico, said he is allowed bedding of "non-shreddable" material. "I’ve held it, I’ve felt it, it’s soft, I’d sleep under it," he told The Daily Beast.

He isn’t allowed to exercise (Quantico officials dispute this), but he has started stretching and practicing yoga.

For an hour every day, a television is wheeled in front of his cell and he’s allowed to watch TV, including news, though usually local news, Coombs told The Daily Beast. He is allowed to read the news as well. Courtesy of Coombs, Manning now has a subscription to his favorite magazine, Scientific American. The November "Hidden Worlds of Dark Matter" issue was his first.

The conditions under which Bradley Manning is being held would traumatize anyone (see Salon’s Glenn Greenwald for a rundown of the legal and psychological issues associated with extended solitary confinement). He lives alone in a small cell, denied human contact. He is forced to wear shackles when outside of his cell, and when he meets with the few people allowed to visit him, they sit with a glass partition between them. The only person other than prison officials and a psychologist who has spoken to Manning face to face is his attorney, who says the extended isolation—now more than seven months of solitary confinement—is weighing on his client’s psyche.

When he was first arrested, Manning was put on suicide watch, but his status was quickly changed to "Prevention of Injury" watch (POI), and under this lesser pretense he has been forced into his life of mind-numbing tedium. His treatment is harsh, punitive and taking its toll, says Coombs.

There is no evidence he’s a threat to himself, and shouldn’t be held in such severe conditions under the artifice of his own protection.

"The command is basing this treatment of him solely on the nature of the pending charges, and on an unrelated incident where a service member in the facility took his own life," Coombs said, referencing the February suicide of a marine captain in the Quantico brig. Coombs says he believes Quantico officials are keeping Manning under close watch with strict limitations on his activity out of an overabundance of caution. Both Coombs and Manning’s psychologist, Coombs says, are sure Manning is mentally healthy, that there is no evidence he’s a threat to himself, and shouldn’t be held in such severe conditions under the artifice of his own protection.

Manning faces a military court-martial on charges of providing WikiLeaks with classified information in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

His future remains uncertain. Rep John Conyers (D-MI), in Thursday's congressional hearing on WikiLeaks, called for calm and a measured response to the new challenges the whistleblower's site presents to the future of governance. "When everyone in this town is joined together calling for someone's head, it's a pretty sure sign that we need to slow down and take a look."

Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) followed with a call for punishment. "I have no sympathy for the alleged thief in this situation," Poe said, insisting the source of the leak, whoever it is, be held responsible. "He’s no better than a Texas pawn shop dealer that deals in stolen merchandise and sells it to the highest bidder."

Manning’s fate will be determined over the following months. What is clear today is that he’s being held in extraordinarily harsh conditions—notably harsher than Bryan Minkyu Martin, the naval intelligence specialist who allegedly tried to sell military secrets to an undercover FBI agent, and is currently being held awaiting trial, though not in solitary confinement. Manning, who has been convicted of nothing, has spent the better part of a year incommunicado, living the life of a man convicted of a heinous crime. Coombs challenges the legality of what he says is "unlawful pretrial punishment." He is working to lift the POI restrictions placed on his client.

Denver Nicks is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast.