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Paris Hilton: PEOPLE's Exclusive Interview

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“Thank God I’m free!”

These were the words of Paris Hilton, smiling and fluffing her newly replaced blonde hair extensions Tuesday at her grandfather’s Bel Air mansion, just hours after her release from the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, Calif.

In an exclusive interview and photo shoot with PEOPLE, Hilton, 26, gave a candid glimpse into her 23 days in jail – including her explanation of the medical problems that led to her brief transfer to house arrest, and what she says she’s learned from her experience.

“I was basically in the fetal position, basically in hysterics,” Hilton says of her first sleepless nights in jail. As for her fellow inmates, she adds, “All of the inmates were very supportive. There were girls next to me. We could talk through the vents and they were just really sweet.”

Other highlights from her sit-down interview with PEOPLE’s Jess Cagle and Elizabeth Leonard:

On her medical condition:
“The doctors were observing me while I was there. They explained to Sheriff [Lee] Baca that they thought I was having severe anxiety, panic attacks, claustrophobia.”

Hilton at her grandfather’s Bel Air home
On people who doubt that she will change after her jail experience:
“They’re wrong and they don’t know me. I’m a good person. I’m a compassionate person. I have a big heart. I’m sincere, and they’ll see.”

On getting out:
“Just being able to hug my mom felt so great, and I really needed it ’cause I haven’t had a hug in a long time.”

For more, including exclusive photos, plus the negative influences Hilton says she’s cutting from her life and what she plans to do next, pick up the latest PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

And watch CNN Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET for Hilton’s interview with Larry King.