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Transgender inmate leaving men's prison

After yearlong court battle, she gets rare transfer to women's prison

Deon "Strawberry" Hampton
Deon "Strawberry" Hampton

CHICAGO (AP) – A transgender woman serving a 10-year sentence in Dixon Correctional Center for burglary has been moved to a women’s prison in what could be a first for the state, her lawyers announced Thursday.

Deon “Strawberry” Hampton, 27, was moved after a yearlong legal battle and resistance from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Hampton, of Chicago, requested the transfer in 2017 on grounds she’d be less vulnerable to the sexual assault, taunting and beatings she was subjected to in male prisons, according to federal lawsuits filed on her behalf by the MacArthur Justice Center and the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago.

She was moved within the past week from the all-male Dixon prison to the women’s Logan Correctional Center, more than 100 miles away in central Illinois, her lawyers said.

IDOC’s hand was forced last month by a federal court that found Hampton had a strong case that her equal-protection rights were violated. It was only the second such ruling in the country by a federal court, her lawyers said.

A federal judge last month also ordered training on transgender issues for all corrections staff statewide in response to Hampton’s lawsuit. Officials said plans for training were underway.

One of Hampton’s lawyers, Vanessa del Valle, hailed the transfer as a victory for transgender rights, but added IDOC still hasn’t fixed “systemic failures” that lead to abuse of transgender inmates.

“The fight for Strawberry and for all trans women in IDOC has only just begun,” del Valle said.

Her attorneys say the court fight will continue, as Hampton has lawsuits pending against officers for allegedly abusing her or failing to protect her at various prisons. She is seeking unspecified damages.

“It’s also our hope that this will not be a one-time review and that they will begin to do a similar all-encompassing review of all trans people in the Illinois Department of Corrections,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which also represents Hampton. “I think that the great failing with the department has been its unwillingness to talk to people individually to find out what they best need, and that is what the law requires.”

IDOC confirmed the transfer in a brief statement Thursday, adding that the agency “carefully considered Hampton’s housing placement before making the transfer.”

In previous court filings, IDOC said one concern was that Hampton would pose a risk to female inmates if moved.

Hampton has been housed at four different male prisons over the past two years and asserts she experienced abuse and misconduct at all of them, saying she felt like a “sex slave.”

In court documents, Hampton said a corrections officer pulled down her shorts and asked about her genitals, and that she was coerced into phone sex with a lieutenant and was forced to engage in sex acts with a cellmate for the entertainment of corrections employees. Hampton also said staff members referred to her with slurs and derogatory terms like “it” and “he-she,” and that other inmates have groped her and threatened to rape and kill her.

Hampton described how guards and fellow inmates regularly singled her out for brutal treatment at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois and earlier at Pinckneyville Correctional Center.

Unable to comfortably represent herself as female in the male prison – where she couldn’t wear her hair or nails long – was devastating psychologically, according to one filing from her lawyers.

“I feel inhuman,” Hampton said.

Although prison officials in most states do have the option of assigning male-to-female transgender inmates to women’s prisons, it happens infrequently. The latest available federal data from 2016 indicates there were no transgender female inmates in Illinois’ two female prisons; there were 28 transgender women in the state’s 24 male prisons.

Nationwide, prisons and jails have struggled with appropriate housing for transgender inmates, who face high rates of physical and sexual assault, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Almost a quarter of trans people surveyed reported being physically assaulted by staff or other inmates, with 1 in 5 reporting sexual assault.

The Trump administration in May rolled back protections for federal transgender prisoners that had been adopted by the Obama administration.

The new guidelines go by “biological sex as the initial determination” for facility assignments for transgender inmates, rarely using gender identity as the standard, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Transgender Offender Manual.

In court filings, IDOC also cast doubt on Hampton’s gender identity – alleging Hampton in initial sessions with prison health workers never claimed to be transgender and, in the words of one filing, “was OK with being male.”

Clinical psychiatrist George Brown said in a declaration to a federal court, though, that Hampton showed all the features of someone convinced of their female identity, adding Hampton has identified as female since the age of 5. Court documents also say she began hormone therapy about 2 years ago.

Brown also challenged the department’s contention that Hampton could be a greater risk to women because she hasn’t had sex reassignment surgery, saying such a view “conflicts with all reliable medical literature.” He said Hampton’s low testosterone levels due to previous hormone treatments meant she was “functionally chemically castrated.”

– The Tribune News Service contributed to this article

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