After rare transfer, transgender inmate talks life at women’s prison
Just before Christmas, the 27-year-old transgender inmate was granted a rare transfer to a women’s prison in alignment with her gender identity
By Angie Leventis Lourgos
LINCOLN, Ill. — The inmate applies a layer of gloss to her full lips, pressing them against one another and smoothing the edges lightly with her fingertips.
As the warden approaches, she tucks the tube back in the pocket of her navy-and-white uniform, which properly fits the curves of her newly feminine frame.
“Well if it ain’t Ms. Hampton,” the warden greets her, the jangle of his ring of keys reverberating from the walls of Logan Correctional Center, a prison for women roughly three hours southwest of Chicago in Lincoln.
At the sound of the female title preceding her surname, Strawberry Hampton’s mouth widens to a lustrous smile.
Just before Christmas, the 27-year-old transgender inmate was granted a rare transfer to a women’s prison in alignment with her gender identity. The move came amid her yearlong court battle chronicling allegations of abuse and sexual assault by both inmates and corrections staff at four men’s facilities across Illinois.
“At the end of the day, I’m safe here, I feel good,” she tells the Tribune during her first media interview since her transfer to Logan. “I don’t have to worry about someone trying to attack me for being a woman.”
In court documents, Hampton said she endured beatings, sexual misconduct and transphobic slurs — staff referring to her as “it” or “he-she” and other derogatory terms — while housed with men as she serves a 10-year sentence for a Cook County residential burglary conviction.
The case spurred a federal judge in November to order the Illinois Department of Corrections to implement transgender training for all staff, and to re-evaluate Hampton’s previously denied request to be moved to a women’s prison.
Her attorneys have hailed the decision as a potential victory for gender nonconforming inmates nationwide as jails and prisons around the country grapple with housing procedures.
State corrections officials have said the department carefully considers these assignments, taking into account the unique needs of inmates who identify as transgender.
IDOC “maintains a strict zero tolerance policy toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” the department said in a written statement.
At Logan, surrounded by some 1,500 female inmates, Hampton says she’s finally able to live as a woman without fear of harm or reprisal.
Her fingernails are kept long. A light liner rims her eyes. Her mahogany-shaded cheeks are smooth and free of any facial hair. She says she’s now permitted appropriate underwear for her softened body and developed breasts, the result of hormone therapy initiated in 2016 as part of her physical transition.
Long, curled bangs frame her face, and she occasionally shifts them to the side. She says other women in the unit braid parts of her hair for her, while the rest extends just past her shoulders.
“The women here accepts me all the way,” she says in the prison library, with volumes of poetry by Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks lining the bookshelf behind her. “When I’m walking down the hall, everybody hug me, everybody scream my name. They treat me like a regular woman.”
Warden Glen Austin says he sees her no differently from anyone else at Logan.
“People are who they are,” he says. “I’m a man of God. I don’t believe in passing judgment. … I know some people are challenged by that. I’m not.”
‘You got no help’
On Dec. 21, when Hampton first arrived at Logan, she recalls the warden took her aside, an unexpected personal interaction.
“We want you here,” he told her. “We really think you can thrive in this place.”
Hampton was stunned.
“He didn’t judge me, didn’t attack me for what they did to me at the other joints, like everybody else did when I was shifted from joint to joint,” she says. “And (he’s) a black man at that. You know, normally black men in the community don’t like transgender black males-to-females. But he was open-minded, and he was caring and he understood what I’d been through.”
The introduction was a stark contrast to her claimed treatment at various Illinois prisons for men, where she described feeling like a “sex slave” — in and out of segregation units, singled out for brutal treatment and punished for behaving like a woman, according to the transcript of a September evidentiary hearing.
“It is hell,” she had told the judge.
At Pinckneyville Correctional Center, she said, an officer pulled down her shorts and asked what genitalia she had; she also claims she was forced to have phone sex with a lieutenant, and that other officers made her and a cellmate perform sex acts for the officers’ entertainment.
At Menard Correctional Center, where she alleged that officers made her touch herself inappropriately and dance in her cell, she said she feared they would have tried to kill her if she told them no. As part of a settlement from a related lawsuit, she was moved to Lawrence Correctional Center, where she said another inmate exposed himself, masturbated and threatened to rape her; she said staff ignored her complaints and the inmate was moved close to her in segregation, where he continued to threaten her, according to court documents.
At Dixon Correctional Center, where she was housed until December, she claimed the verbal and physical harassment and sexual abuse by staff and male inmates continued.
Hampton still has lawsuits pending against corrections officers for allegedly abusing her or failing to protect her at various prisons and is seeking unspecified damages.
She says the violence had caused her to self-harm as well as attempt suicide.
“It was very scary,” she says. “It was very mentally and emotionally draining to where you feel like everything around you is just … you got no help, you got nobody to protect you. The people that’s supposed to protect are the ones that’s hurting you.”
Raised in various neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago, Hampton said she knew she was a girl since the age of 5.
“I had on my sister’s dress, I’ll never forget, my mama was there and I was dancing,” she says, adding that her mother, older sister and aunt are her biggest supporters.
Hampton says that with her higher-pitched voice and feminine features, most of the women at Logan weren’t initially aware she was transgender, but she told everyone anyway.
“Why should I hide who I am?” she says. “They ask questions, I answer them.”
Illinois corrections officials say other transgender women have previously been transferred to women’s prisons, but they would not give specific numbers or years when the moves took place.
Hampton’s move to Logan comes as the nation grapples with transgender rights in prisons and jails.
The Trump administration in May rolled back protections for transgender inmates in federal prisons adopted during Barack Obama’s presidency. The new guidelines use biological sex as the initial determination for housing assignments, only using inmates’ gender identity in rare cases, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Transgender Offender Manual. The change follows a 2016 federal lawsuit in Texas, where several female inmates argued that sharing facilities with prisoners who are transgender could be dangerous as well as violate the right to privacy.
In June, the Chicago-based American Medical Association urged that policies be changed to allow transgender prisoners to be housed based on gender identity, citing a much higher risk of violence and sexual assault against them.
The AMA also said segregation and solitary confinement aren’t viable solutions because they act as “further punishment by removing prisoners from the companionship of others” and deny those inmates access to prison programs, and that such measures are “psychologically damaging.”
‘Control your own destiny’
Bordered by Madigan State Park and the winding Salt Creek, Logan stretches out across more than 150 acres, 57 of which are enclosed in security fencing.
Sixty-seven buildings dot the landscape, from the infirmary to a segregation unit to a variety of vocational and educational sites. Armed guards at 10 towers survey the premises.
On a particularly hazy weekday, stretches of fog and light flurries conceal the security fencing and towers from view. Traveling from one red-brick building to another feels more like a walk on a college campus than a multilevel-security prison.
“I want for the ladies who live here to at times almost forget that they’re at a prison,” Austin says. “I think that’s vital to preserve some sense of hope when you’re faced with difficult circumstances.”
While roughly 12 percent of inmates at Logan are in for murder and about 16 percent for Class X felonies, Austin says another 65 percent were convicted of nonviolent offenses and have less than two years to serve. On average, about 40 percent of the population is deemed seriously mentally ill, and 98 percent suffer from some kind of trauma, the warden says.
A 2016 study funded by the Department of Justice had called conditions at Logan “untenable,” citing overcrowding and an overuse of harsh punishments. The assessment helped fuel support for the Women’s Correctional Services Act in 2017, which restored a women’s division within the Department of Corrections, as well as set standards for gender-specific training and practices.
In 2017, of 135 complaints of abusive sexual contact or sexual harassment at Logan, 11 were substantiated, according to IDOC data. A lawsuit filed by a former inmate at Logan in September claimed she was sexually assaulted by a maintenance worker and that the maintenance department at the prison “was rife with custodial sexual misconduct.” The department would not comment on the pending litigation.
Yet Austin says culture at Logan has undergone an immense culture shift recently, with staff undergoing innovative training on strategies for working with female inmates, recognizing trauma, de-escalating conflict and working with those who are mentally ill.
“It’s a huge difference, gender differences,” he says. “Women are typically less violent than men. Women come in for different reasons. … You’re talking about survival, substance abuse, mental illness, traumatization and victimization.”
He ticks off more gender nuances on his fingers: different health care care needs. More economic marginalization on the outside. Greater parental responsibilities for moms.
As for Hampton, the warden believes living in an environment of women, with programming catered to those gender differences, will provide an opportunity for her to excel.
“But part of that responsibility lies with her,” Austin says.
Hampton says she’s signed up for transgender counseling and plans to get her GED while in custody. She is scheduled for parole in November 2019 and hopes for a good life “free of abuse” when out of custody.
Austin tells her he hopes she can be released sooner by restoring some of her good time credit, which was lost while at the prisons for men, if she maintains proper conduct at Logan.
“Well, Warden Austin, you know when I feel like I’m being attacked my mouth flies off,” she says.
“That’s something you’ve got to work on,” he says. “Impulsivity.”
She nods, adding that early release is her goal as well.
“Ultimately,” he tells her, “I truly think here you can control your own destiny.”
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