Earlier this week, Strawberry Hampton finally won her release from prison, after years of targeted harassment, abuse, and discrimination because of her gender identity.
Strawberry is a transgender woman who for the majority of her incarceration was housed in men’s prisons. While in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), she was subjected to extreme, unrelenting sexual violence and abuse by other prisoners, by guards, and by the administration charged with keeping her safe.
When she reported the guards who abused her, prison officials retaliated by giving her unfounded disciplinary tickets and putting her in solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time. For years, her life was a nightmare.
But Strawberry stood up and fought back.
It took two years of litigation with the IDOC – and transfers to four different men’s prisons in the Illinois penitentiary system – before she finally was sent to a women’s prison last December. Strawberry is the second person in the country to win a federal court ruling recognizing that a prison’s decision to house transgender women in a men’s prison could be a form of unlawful discrimination.
Despite her historic victory, the fight was not over. The unfounded disciplinary tickets Strawberry received in retaliation for reporting the abuse she endured caused her sentence to be extended by nine months. So even though she completed her sentence in February, she still had to fight for her freedom.
And today, Strawberry is free.
At 28 years old, Strawberry Hampton has already endured more abuse and more hardship than most of us could imagine. Yet she is one of the most fearless, confident people I’ve ever met, and her spirit cannot be broken.
I am proud to fight alongside her as she continues to battle for the rights of transgender people who are trapped in the criminal justice system.
Correctional systems across the country continue to ignore the national regulations set forth in the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Under PREA, transgender inmates should receive individualized placement and housing assessments, based on a number of factors, including personal safety. Yet many prisons, including IDOC, still automatically default to housing prisoners based on their sex assigned at birth. As a result, before Strawberry’s transfer in 2018, there were around 50 transgender woman in the custody of IDOC who all were housed in men’s prisons. Those trans women who are still incarcerated remain 10 times more vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence than other prisoners.
Thanks to Strawberry’s determination, we are hopeful that we are going to start seeing some improvements in IDOC. As a result of her lawsuit, a federal court judge has ordered IDOC to require comprehensive training around transgender issues for all corrections staff. That’s a good start, but there’s much more to be done.
Everyone needs to understand that you don’t give up your constitutional rights when you go to prison, and that the prison has an obligation to keep safe all people in custody, especially its most vulnerable populations. It shouldn’t take a lengthy legal battle to secure a prisoner’s basic safety. But as long as it does, we will continue to fight in court to protect the most vulnerable behind bars.
For anyone out there who is facing this type of abuse themselves, or anyone who loves someone who is in prison and being subjected to this kind of torment, I hope you’ll find some strength and hope from Strawberry’s example.
Even after everything Strawberry has gone through, she’s still so incredibly positive and forward-looking. She has spent her first few days of freedom with a beaming smile on her face. She keeps talking about her plans for the future and her commitment to continuing to be a champion for the transgender community. She’s an inspiration.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to her yourself.