Hampton tells of life as trangender in Illinois prison system

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Charles Preston / Injustice Watch

Strawberry Hampton, formerly incarcerated in several Illinois prisons, discusses her experiences in custody at her attorney’s office in Chicago.

Injustice Watch interviewed Strawberry Hampton, a transgender woman who was sentenced to 10 years for residential burglary in 2015. Hampton initially served her sentence in male facilities, where she alleges she experienced sexual abuse by male prisoners and prison staff. After waging a two-year long campaign to be transferred to a women’s facility, she was finally transferred to Logan Correctional Center in December 2018.

Injustice Watch reported Thursday on more than two dozen Illinois corrections department employees who mocked, demeaned or disclosed personal information about transgender individuals and, in some cases, specifically about Hampton. 

Now a free woman after her release earlier this summer, Hampton sat down with Injustice Watch last month for an interview about her experience inside Illinois prisons, her life on the outside, and what the future holds.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You haven’t been out of prison for two months. How are you doing?

A: After being locked up for 5 years and 5 months, it’s adjusting back to reality. I barely know how to work the internet. I’m trying my best to get a job. I have a lot of needs. So my lawyers and my supporters have been trying everything they can to help me and support me.

You were supposed to originally be released in February. Why was that delayed—in your own words? 

Well, in my own words, the Illinois Department of Corrections tried to silence me from speaking out against the abuse and the retaliation they did to me.

You’ve also been transferred four times? 

More than that, but yes.

Can you describe the process of being transferred between men’s facilities?

When you come in the NRC [Northern Reception and Classification Center, the first stop for most people sentenced to the Illinois Department of Corrections], you sit there for two to three weeks—up to almost a month, some people be there for six to three months. In the process, you have to be strip-searched. Bend over. Spread your cheeks. They have to look in your asshole and everything.

It feels like you’re being dehumanized and de-masculated. When they’re ready to ship you out, they put you in a cage and they let you sit there piled up like a bunch of monkeys. And they ship you out around at like 8 o’clock or 7:30. When you get to your new facility, you have to go through the whole process again.

Now, on this process, you have no bathroom on the bus—meaning that you have to smell shit and piss all the way there because they don’t have a bathroom stop. They don’t have bathrooms on the bus. So we’re shackled up. If you were to piss right now, and I’m shackled to you, you would piss on me or shit on me.  And there is nothing I can do. If I get up and try to complain about it, I would be beaten.

So the transfer situation is very traumatic. It is very detrimental. It causes people to have bladder leakage and all type of dysfunctional bowel movement. To be transferred…is very stressful. It’s very stressful.

Stressful. Was it still stressful transferring from those men’s facilities to finally being placed in a women’s facility? 

I think I should’ve been in a woman’s facility a long time ago. I am a woman, so, there was no reason for them to house me in a man’s facility. I feel like they judge me based on my anatomy, which doesn’t define me as a woman.

The true essence of a woman is how you present yourself and how you carry yourself. You have a lot of females that aren’t women. Just because you’re born with a vagina don’t mean you a woman. A woman is someone who carries herself with class, respect, and integrity, and also knows her true worth and herself.

I feel like a lot of the people in the administration was very biased and prejudiced, and very hateful towards the LGBTQIA community.

Even the caretakers? The people who are supposed to take care of you in prison?

Yes. The directors. The wardens. The counselors. The mental health staff. The officers.

The people that’s supposed to protect you is the people that create the hurt and the pain. They have scarred me for the rest of my life.

Now I’ve seen you’ve garnered a lot of attention, especially with your lawsuits. What are the goals of these lawsuits, and why? 

I want all they ass to go to jail. I want them to pay every fucking penny I ask for. I want them to suffer and I want them to be exposed.

Why is that? 

Because they hurt me and they hurt other people before me.

Do you think your lawsuits will help the system change to treat trans inmates better? 

I think that it will be done more discreetly now that I’m the voice for the trans-community in prison. And now that if anything happens to trans, they can file a grievance; they can file a lawsuit; or they can reach out to the best lawyers in the world, Sheila [Bedi] and Vanessa [del Valle] (Strawberry’s attorneys from Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic).

How can people support trans women in prison? People on the outside. 

Well, you know a lot of trans women don’t have family. A lot of trans women don’t have support. A lot of people contract HIV/AIDS or STDs because they have to solicit themselves to eat. The food they feed you in [prison], I wouldn’t feed a rat or raccoon.

A lot of the girls have to degrade themselves to survive and they need the support. We all need the supp-I needed the support at one time. It’s very depressing cuz there might be a guy that you don’t want to sleep with but you sleep with just to eat. You might have to sleep with an officer in order to eat and they’ll hang it over your head. So anything… It’s all about survival.

One thing I do know that I needed while was in there: Support like letters, phone calls. Like…when I wanted to talk to someone, I couldn’t talk to someone because me and my family weren’t getting along at the time. There were times where my ma couldn’t put [money] on my phone or send me money for food. A support system is good. You don’t have to know a person to reach out to them. You never know what a person is going through in jail.

Can you tell me about developing community? You said that on the outside you have this community of lawyers. Who did you have on the inside? Did you have community?  You can talk about your experiences in men’s facilities versus women’s. What has community looked like for Strawberry, if there is any? 

It was a lot of drama and a lot of chaos but we ended up supporting each other when we needed to, even the girls who didn’t like me. They were supportive when they seen that I was fighting for a cause.

When they realized what I said was true, they was apologetic. They were more sympathetic. But still, in the back of their mind, they were like “This person here is something else.”

…Being in a man’s prison is very nasty, very cruel. I was sexually assaulted on a daily basis— someone groping my breasts, someone grabbing my ass, someone trying to kiss me.

If I didn’t want to have sex, I would have to fight for my safety. I was placed in segregation for my whole bid due to the simple fact that they blamed me for being transgendered. They blamed me for being so outspoken and so happy for who I am. I was punished for being free and inside of my skin. I wasn’t free physically, but I was free mentally. I was able to express who I was. I didn’t have to hide behind the curtain. I didn’t have to hide who I was or what I was; it’s just me.

So post-incarceration, what are Strawberry Hampton’s goals? 

To become a multi-billionaire and to be the best transgender in the world to help and support all the LGBTQIA community. I also support the straight community as well. I want to be able to bring to truth to injustice. I want to be able to bring light on what happens on a daily basis in prison.

Strawberry, Injustice Watch thanks you for your time. You’ve listed the community you’ve built within the walls, but is there anyone in particular you’d like to thank?

I want to say thank you to all the people that was in the [Illinois Department of Corrections] that supported me, that stood up for me, and that was there for me when I really needed someone to protect me. You know those guys, the ladies, the other transgenders, and the straight men that put their life on the line—that lost time.

They got beaten. They got their food played with. They got all their privileges lost just for speaking up for me. I want to say thank you all because it means the world to me. And if it wasn’t for y’all, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my story or let my lawyers know, or let my mother know.