CHICAGO (CBS) — When Strawberry Hampton heard that she would be released from prison, she couldn’t believe it.

“I thought I was going to die in there,” Hampton said. “That they were going to kill me.”

She said that’s because she was abused mentally and physically for years while incarcerated. Hampton is now free, after being released from the Illinois Department of Corrections on Monday. She’s staying with her sister on Chicago’s South Side.

(Credit: MacArthur Justice Center)

Hampton said she’s happy and overwhelmed at the same time. She’s planning for her future, but the events of her past are pulling her towards a path of advocacy.

After Hampton, 28, was sentenced to 10 years for burglary in 2015, and having identified as trans since the age of five, she said she repeatedly asked to be sent to a women’s facility. When she was sent to a men’s prison, one of several during her time as an inmate, things went from bad to worse.

“I was subjected to verbal and physical abuse every day by the inmates and staffing. Beatings. My clothes cut off me with a knife. I was dragged with shackles on my feet and arms,” Hampton said.  “The people that are supposed to protect you that are doing the damaging and the harming to you.”

Hampton said she was repeatedly abused by both fellow inmates and prison workers. She said felt like “a sex slave.”

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She had been transferred to another men’s prison, but said the abuse continued. It wasn’t until November 2018 that she was able to be transferred to a women’s prison where things got a little better.

“I was able to interact with everybody. Most importantly it was amazing,” said Hampton, who added that she was able to get a job in landscaping within the prison.

But Hampton, born Deon Hampton, said that because she complained of her treatment to the IDOC and through her attorneys, that bought her more time behind bars.

“She was originally supposed to be released in February. Due to the retaliatory (disciplinary) ticket she got, it extended her sentence nine months,” said Vanessa Del Valle, Hampton’s attorney.

Del Valle said a clemency petition was filed in April asking Illinois Governor JB Pritzker to grant Hampton clemency to commute her sentence to time served. Del Valle said Hampton’s clemency hearing was set for this Friday.

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At the Cook County Jail, trans resource navigator Reyna Ortiz has been meeting with trans inmates once a week to talk about different subjects, from healthcare to LGBTQ history.

Ortiz said she hears similar stories of despair from trans inmates. One of the biggest problems, Ortiz said, is when prison workers call a trans woman by a male name or pronoun.

“They’re so bigoted toward the girls. The majority of them are women of color, mostly black. Yeah, it’s terrible,” Ortiz said. “I had one girl whose name was completely changed. Gender marker changed. And the officer kept referring to her as a “him.” And I screamed at the officer ‘him who?’ I said her name has been legally changed and is recognized as female in the State of Illinois.”

Ortiz, a trans woman, said she’s not disrespected when she enters the prison, but isn’t so sure about what happens when she leaves.

“I walk in there, and I am treated lovely, to be honest with you. And that’s fine. I wish that I left feeling confident that my girls were going to be treated lovely,” Ortiz said, who noted that the trans women do receive the necessary healthcare they need for everything from their hormone treatments to other healthcare needs. But that’s not enough.

(Credit CBS)

“The girls’ morale is sad. They’re not supported, and the girls are not supported in the jails,” she said. “Not by their families, not by our community and not by the jail itself.”

Hampton said it’s those experiences that are motivating her to help other trans inmates if they’re going through a similar ordeal. Her attorneys have filed two lawsuits against the IDOC and its workers.

Del Valle, with the MacArthur Justice Center, are representing two other trans inmates in separate cases.

“We hope that there comes a time where we don’t have to keep filing these individual lawsuits every time a trans individual is abused. We hope that with awareness coming from these lawsuits that the IDOC will change its policies and procedures and actually follow through on its obligations to protect trans and all individuals in custody.”

IDOC released a statement on Hampton’s time as an inmate.

“Due to pending litigation, the Illinois Department of Corrections cannot comment.”

After the lawsuits have come and gone, Hampton plans to release a book. She’s got lots of plans, including getting a job, her GED and a house in a “nice neighborhood where you can come outside and be free and not worry about no one attacking you for expressing who you are.”

A celebration event is being planned for Hampton by people and organizations who lobbied the governor’s officer, petitioning for her release. Hampton said being gaybashed has left scars but it won’t keep her from moving forward.

“It causes suicidal issues. It causes you to not trust someone. It makes you angry. It makes you upset these people have done everything they can to destroy my life,” Hampton lamented. “(But) one thing I did not let them do is take away my love and happiness for other people.”