Last week, imprisoned whistle-blower Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 14 days in solitary confinement as punishment for her suicide attempt in early July at the prison barracks at Fort Leavenworth. The Fort Leavenworth disciplinary panel could not explicitly punish Manning for attempted suicide. Completed suicide is not a disciplinary violation and, to be guilty of attempting a crime, it’s necessary for the act which is attempted to be one. They disciplined her instead under a charge known as “conduct which threatens,” stating that Manning’s attempt to die interfered with “orderly running, safety, good order and discipline, or security” of the facility. (She is also being disciplined for possessing an unauthorized book). The whistle-blower stated that she was driven to suicide over the prison’s then-failure to appropriately treat her gender dysphoria. Why Manning injuring herself is deemed a threat to the facility’s functioning says much about the nature of that place’s function, says much about the true function of prisons.
Before 1823 in England, according to early common law, if a person committed suicide, they would be posthumously punished. The body would be buried at the crossroads of a highway, impaled by a stake, often with a stone laid over the face (to prevent resurrection as a ghost or vampire). The deceased’s property would be forfeited to the king. Suicide was criminal because sovereignty over life and death did not then reside with the individual but with God, and with his chosen earthly emissary, the king. And since suicide was deemed an ungodly, criminal act, so too was an attempt—at times punishable by hanging. There’s no contradiction here: To execute a person who has herself tried to die is still punishment, not wish fulfillment. It’s the punishment of removing every last shred individual sovereignty; it’s the state’s reminder of where sovereignty really resides. Current state punishment of attempted suicide, in its rare cases like Manning’s, serves the same purpose.
Suicide was decriminalized over time (and with that, so too was attempted suicide). Not until 1961 in England, though, was attempted suicide removed from the business of criminal law, aside from assisted cases, and placed within the purview of medical and mental-health professionals. This shift echoed not onlyincreased secularism and a decrease in religious moralism around suicide but also a shift from royal sovereignty to a sovereign citizenry. Military law regarding suicide has remained stubbornly archaic. The contradiction, that an attempted suicide could be criminally punished even though suicide could not be a crime, still lingers in military law. Suicide attempts are punishable under Article 134 of the Manual for Court Martial, which states that criminal conviction is possible if “the accused has inflicted injury(s) on himself or herself” and “in these circumstances, the accused’s conduct was adverse to the discipline and good order in the armed forces or the nature of the act brought discredit to the armed forces.”
In 2012, the same year that the Department of Defense admitted that the armed services had a “suicide epidemic,” Pvt. Lazzaric T. Caldwell was handed a court-martial six-month incarceration on Article 134 grounds for slitting his wrists. There was court-admitted evidence that the marine had PTSD and depression. The military judge noted that it was an odd charge, because “it is basically criminalizing an attempted suicide,” but convicted anyway. One year later, Caldwell’s conviction was overturned because it was deemed that his particular actions fell short of an Article 134 violation, but the judge did not use the occasion to decriminalize suicide attempts tout court.