The transgender woman described feeling like a "sex slave" while incarcerated at several men's prisons across Illinois, claiming repeated abuse and sexual assaults involving guards and inmates, according to court documents.
Deon "Strawberry" Hampton has sued the Illinois Department of Corrections multiple times in the past year seeking a rarely issued transfer to a women's prison, where she believes she would be safer as she serves a 10-year sentence for burglary.
This week, a federal judge in southern Illinois ordered state prison officials to re-evaluate Hampton's previously denied request for transfer -- and also mandated that the agency develop training on transgender issues for all staff.
An attorney representing Hampton called the order a victory for all incarcerated transgender women.
"This is an important step, not only for Strawberry but in general for transgender women imprisoned across the nation," said Vanessa del Valle, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents Hampton.
As part of the order, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Rosenstengel on Wednesday said Hampton also must be allowed to attend a transgender support group while in segregation at Dixon Correctional Center, where she is now incarcerated, roughly a hundred miles west of downtown Chicago. She had been prohibited from doing so.
The court gave the state Department of Corrections 14 days to report back with a training plan, which agency officials say is "underway."
"The Illinois Department of Corrections maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy toward all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment," said spokeswoman Lindsey Hess. "The Department carefully considers housing assignments and the unique needs of offenders who identify as transgender. The IDOC's mental health professionals receive specialized training and ongoing consultation from a transgender expert."
While the court did not mandate Hampton's transfer to a female prison, the order strongly suggested that the department's Transgender Care Review Committee re-evaluate evidence for and against the request, including interviewing Hampton.
"A review of Hampton's full mental health and disciplinary history in the context of her substantiated ... complaints and grievances may lead the committee itself to conclude that Hampton is safest in a woman's prison," Rosenstengel said in court documents. "If not, the Court can revisit the issue after the Constitutional issues have been decided at trial."
While transgender women can be moved to female prisons, such transfers are uncommon: In 2016 there were no transgender inmates in the two female prisons in Illinois, while there were 28 in the two dozen male correctional facilities, according to federal data.
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Over the past two years, Hampton has been housed in four different men's prisons and alleges she experienced abuse and misconduct at all of them.
At Pinckneyville Correctional Center, she claims in court documents, an officer pulled down her shorts and asked what genitalia she had, she was forced to have phone sex with a lieutenant, and other officers made her and a cellmate engage in sex acts for the officers' entertainment.
Hampton said she and her cellmate were warned to stay quiet, otherwise the officers would "make their bodies disappear," court documents said.
Since March, Hampton has been incarcerated at Dixon Correctional Center, where she alleges she has been sexually assaulted by other inmates, one of whom threatened her with further physical harm.
Court documents said Hampton has identified as female since she was 5 years old. In 2016, as part of her physical transition, she began hormone therapy, which has feminized her appearance "while shrinking her muscles and male anatomy"; by January 2018, her testosterone level was considered "similar to males who have been surgically castrated," court documents said.
The local court battle comes amid a larger fight for transgender rights in jails and prisons nationwide.
In May, the Trump administration rolled back protections for transgender inmates in federal prisons that had been adopted in the final days of the Obama administration. The changes came after several female inmates in Texas filed a federal lawsuit arguing that sharing facilities with transgender inmates would violate privacy rights and could be dangerous.
The new guidelines use "biological sex as the initial determination" for facility assignments for transgender inmates, only going by the inmate's gender identity in rare cases, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Transgender Offender Manual.
Transgender inmates in jail, prison or juvenile detention face high rates of physical and sexual assault, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Almost a quarter of respondents reported being physically assaulted by staff or other inmates, and 1 in 5 said they were sexually assaulted. Transgender inmates were also more than five times as likely to be sexually assaulted by staff compared with the rest of the incarcerated population, and more than nine times as likely to be sexually assaulted by other inmates, the survey said.
"Prisons are far behind where we are at in society," said del Valle, the MacArthur Justice Center attorney. "There has to be a lot of training in working with transgender inmates, to learn how to deal with their very specific needs and to learn how to deal with the discrimination they face."
The Associated Press contributed.