On the day that I am scheduled to see my friend Chelsea for the first time in six years, I wake up at 4:51pm to a shrieking fire alarm in my hotel room. Semi-conscious and disoriented, I leap out of bed and spin around wildly grabbing at all the things I care about – my phone and passport, the precious slip of paper that will allow me entrance to Fort Leavenworth prison, the bag of quarters that Chelsea asked me to bring – ready for an FBI raid disguised as a fire drill. Before I finish putting on shoes, the alarm stops. Slowly the wave of paranoia in my stomach grinds to a halt.
I make myself be still and breathe for a moment, reabsorbing my surroundings. I’m standing on the fourth floor of a modest hotel on the edge of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Outside the window looms a blue-grey sky, a vast horizon dense and textured like charcoal mixed with cream. The land is flat, green, fertile, midwestern. A hot humid river is all that separates us from Missouri. To people like Chelsea and me, who grew up in Oklahoma and Missouri before running away to sharp-edged cities by the sea, this place feels simultaneously homelike and suffocating.
As boring as Kansas is, you have to award it points for charm. Ex: a steakhouse across from the old Ft Leavenworth prison proudly proclaims itself “The Little Steak House Across from the Big House,” betraying no awareness of dark irony. The prison staff are all exceedingly polite and helpful, even when they are reprimanding me for not having a driver’s license, even when the receptionist mistakenly refers to Chelsea as “he” over a dozen times in a 5 minute phone call. “Now you go and have yourself a good day, honey,” they say in a warm-hued drawl as I navigate another step in the military bureaucracy, inching closer to actually being able to see Chelsea.
For the curious, here is approximately the process I went through to gain visitation access to the Ft Leavenworth Disciplinary Barracks:
- December 2015: Chelsea adds me to her list of telephone contacts and starts the application process for my visitation, which requires evidence that we were acquainted prior to her confinement.
- March/April 2016: I receive a letter notifying me that my visitation was approved but a background check is required prior to the visit. Over the course of a week or two, I called at least five different offices at Fort Leavenworth to inquire about how to do the background check before flying to Kansas. Nobody really knew, so I gave up and just booked a flight.
- May 2016: After confirming via phone that I was on the Fort Leavenworth visit schedule, I fly to Kansas City. My trip companions and I check in at the Visitor Control Center to register our vehicle and get access passes to the fort. One of us is denied for having a non-US passport. The other two of us are given passes promptly and without background checks. After that, the two of us are free to drive on and off the army base.
If all goes well, I will be Chelsea’s first visitor since her sister in November.
At 6:20pm on May 25, we drive into Fort Leavenworth for the first time. I am surprised to discover that it is full of grassy fields, lush tree-lined sidewalks, and pastel suburban houses, not at all like a place where you would put a military prison. I wave at some joggers.
At 6:50pm, we finally find the United States Discipline Barracks, home of Chelsea’s prison cell. I walk inside and follow the signs to the visitation area. There are rules for visitation printed on the wall, which I’ve read a half-dozen times (no low-cut clothing, no short pants or skirts, 5 sheets of paper allowed, pencils and pens allowed, quarters and cash allowed in a transparent ziplock bag, no WiFi-enabled devices, no jackets, no cameras). The guard is friendly and makes light conversation with me, like all the Fort Leavenworth staff members I’ve interacted with so far. How bizarre to think that these friendly people, dripping with syrup-thick midwestern hospitality, are the same people keeping Chelsea forcibly isolated from the outside world for the next three decades.
I force out a weak smile, explain my visitation purpose in my a faintly-artificial Missouri accent. The guard sees me on the visit schedule but is concerned that my shirt doesn’t have sleeves. Apparently sleeveless shirts are not allowed, even though this isn’t printed anywhere in the rules. Fuck. He goes to consult another officer. I nervously fidget.
Thankfully, it is decided that I am allowed to enter (though I must wear a sleeved shirt next time). They let me through the metal detector after inspecting my 5 sheets of paper and ziplock bag containing 6 pencils, 1 pen, and $10 in quarters. I am flooded with relief, which quickly washes away into nervousness as I enter the visit room where Chelsea, my friend who I haven’t seen in six years, who I thought I would never see again after her arrest, is supposedly waiting.
She’s not there. Instead there’s just some grey tables and chairs, depressingly few of which are occupied by inmates and their sad-looking visitors.
And then the door opens and she walks in.
We run towards each other.
We hug, and my eyes fill with tears.
When something that you’ve convinced yourself will never happen is finally happening, there’s a moment when your brain starts to panic and desperately record every detail, fearing that this is all an illusion that will soon dissolve without a trace. So I looked at her as if I would never see her again, my heart sinking with the realization that there will probably never exist a photo of Chelsea Manning, age 28, for the world to see. It made me sad, because she looks nothing like any of the photos of her on the Internet. She looked like a hero, brighter and stronger than in all my memories, radiant with a light that makes no sense.
She was wearing a brown prison uniform that was too big for her small frame and smiling ear-to-ear. Her hair was neatly combed in a short pixieish cut, no longer than the 2-inch maximum allowed by the prison. Despite everything, she looked even younger than I remembered, with glowing skin and large blue eyes framed by elegant cheekbones. We beamingly smiled at each other for several seconds, suspended in disbelief and joy.
“So do you wanna sit down?” I say. We find a table, and smile some more, and then I ask if she wants anything from the vending machines. “Sure, I’ll get something I’m not usually able to get,” she says, picking a Mountain Dew. I pay for it using 6 quarters from my ziplock bag. I also try to buy her some sour cream-flavored chips, but the snacks machine is broken, which makes me unusually angry. I make a mental reminder to ask the prison staff to fix it.
We sit back down and talk for most of two hours without pausing. We talk about life in prison, where she spends 40 hours a week working in a wood shop and somehow finds time to take college correspondence courses, read journals, write a column for The Guardian, and work with lawyers on her appeal. We talk about her growing interest in post-quantum cryptography and the collection of books building up in her cell. We talk about the last time we met and what our mutual friends are up to nowadays. We talk about our complex relationships with family. We talk about my shoes (which she likes a lot) and the kind of music that she used to DJ. We talk about where she would live if she weren’t in prison. We talk about how she find motivation to keep going every day, even though some days her life feels unfair and hopeless. Many times, I am speechlessly awed by her curiosity and perseverance in the face of extremely messed-up, depressing circumstances.
I bring up her recent appeal to reduce her sentence from 35 years to 10 years, and she seems worried that it didn’t receive enough coverage in the press. She hopes that the world hasn’t forgotten about her.
I’m not sure what to say. Like others, I feel guilty for not doing more to raise public awareness for her case. Maybe if I’d spoken up more about how her sentence was grossly unjust, or written about the importance of her trial as a precedent for all whistleblowers, she’d be in a better place now. Instead all I could do was sit and chat with her, drinking soda in a sterile grey room while someone’s toddler screamed and cried at the table next to us.
Before I realize it, it’s 9:25pm and the guard is yelling at us that our time is up. Chelsea, a self-identified extrovert, seems sad that I’m leaving, even though I’ll be back in 22 hours for my second and last day of visitation. We say our goodbyes and hug each other, holding the embrace longer this time.
Back outside, I stand and watch the inmates’ families pile into their cars and drive home. Some of them live near the prison so they can visit their imprisoned loved one every day. I think about how strange it is that Chelsea is a hero to thousands if not millions of people, but there is nobody who does this for her.
I don’t want us to forget her at least.