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Law & Disorder

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What is Paris Hilton doing in a jailhouse medical center? Why was she sprung—then ordered back behind bars? And is she really done acting dumb? Inside her life in lockup—and the controversy over whether she’s getting special treatment

From her courtroom cries of “Mom! Mom!” to her contrite phone call to Barbara Walters, Paris Hilton‘s winding journey through the Los Angeles criminal justice system has inspired tears, jeers and plenty of controversy—not to mention a YouTube-topping parody music video starring a Paris lookalike in a jailbird-orange bikini. The 26-year-old heiress was released from jail June 7 following what the L.A. sheriff’s department termed her “deteriorating” health, only to be ordered back behind bars June 8. But “she’s being strong,” her sister Nicky said after visiting Paris at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility medical center on June 10. As Paris herself told Barbara Walters in a phone interview later that day, “I feel as if I’m a different person. I used to act dumb…. That act is no longer cute. I know now that I can make a difference.”

Arguments raged over whether Hilton has been treated more leniently—or more harshly—than nonfamous convicts, from her initial 45-day sentence (for violating probation by repeatedly driving with a suspended license) to her early release to her move from an L.A. county lockup to the medical facility. Legal experts were stunned by Hilton’s unprecedented bounce in and out of jail. “This is insane—it’s off the charts,” says L.A.’s Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. Hilton is now expected to serve a minimum of 23 days (reduced because of a state jail policy encouraging good behavior). But will she stick to her promise to emerge a changed woman? “Paris will make it through this—she’s a survivor,” says a source close to her. “She always had her party-girl face. But this is a terribly humanizing situation.”

What is Paris’s psychological problem?

In a June 8 press conference, Sheriff Lee Baca cited Hilton’s “severe medical problems” and “increasing deterioration” as the key factors in prompting her early release to home detention. The county jail was not equipped to treat Hilton’s problem, said Baca, “especially when you’re dealing with various psychological and psychiatric issues.” When asked why Hilton appeared fine at the MTV Movie Awards just a few hours before her June 3 incarceration, Baca replied, “She was medicated when she entered the jail system, unbeknownst to us.” What exactly was the problem? Officials won’t say, but a friend of Paris confirms reports that she suffers from attention deficit disorder and was being treated for the condition prior to her incarceration. A Hilton family friend also says Paris suffered from claustrophobia in her isolated, 12-ft.-by-8 ft. jail cell: “How can it not be claustrophobic, going from a huge house in the Hollywood Hills to a little cell?” The same source adds that during her 74 hours in county lockup, “She practically had a nervous breakdown.”

What about Paris’s spiritual awakening?

“God has given me this new chance,” Hilton said in a June 10 phone call to Barbara Walters, who reported on The View that the heiress has retained a “spiritual adviser” and has been reading the Bible and various self-help books. She also said that Hilton expressed interest in charity work related to breast cancer or multiple sclerosis—diseases that struck her grandmothers—and that she’d like to help open a Paris Hilton “playhouse” for sick children. Only time will tell if she’s sincere, but her parents are regular churchgoers at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, and Paris recently attended services at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church. Says her friend Nicole Lenz: “She mentioned many times leading up to her sentencing that she wanted to endure this experience to help find herself and come out of it a better person.”

How will all this affect her career?

On June 8—the day she was ordered back to jail—Hilton was dropped by the Endeavor talent agency, which had represented her since 2005. South Korea sportswear firm Fila Korea—one of several brands Hilton hawks overseas—has ditched Hilton from its advertising campaign but only for the duration of her prison sentence. “Paris has incredible business savvy,” says Jeff Jenkins, executive producer of The Simple Life, Hilton’s quasi-reality show with Nicole Richie (which Hilton coproduces). And for someone who admits to playing up her party-girl rep, this latest drama “is a gift for a career that might otherwise be flagging,” says image consultant Larry Kamer. “It just makes her more bankable.”

For up-to-the-minute news, photos and more on Paris go to WWW.PEOPLE.COM/PARIS_HILTON