“Thank God I’m free!” exclaims Paris Hilton, smiling before a mirror in the foyer of her grandfather’s Bel Air mansion and fluffing her newly replaced blonde hair extensions just before a photo shoot. Since her flashbulb-lit exit from the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, Calif., on June 26, Hilton, 26, hasn’t taken long to readjust to life on the outside after 23 days behind bars. Sitting down for an exclusive PEOPLE interview just 17 hours after her release, she was soft-spoken, occasionally shy – and clearly relieved to be home. Surrounded by family photos – a cake topped with pink flowers and the words “Welcome home” rested on a nearby table – she says one of the day’s first orders of business was food: “I ate a huge breakfast, pancakes and scrambled eggs and orange juice and toast and Frosted Flakes. I haven’t had a great meal in a couple weeks now.”
Born an heiress to her family’s hotel fortune, Hilton banked millions more as a businesswoman, capitalizing on her notoriety as a party-circuit fixture and star of TV’s The Simple Life. (The jeans she wore leaving jail? From her upcoming denim line.) But jail time made Hilton more of a polarizing figure than ever. Handing down an unusually stiff sentence, L.A. judge Michael T. Sauer cited her “disregard” for the law in twice driving with a suspended license, an offense that violated her probation following an earlier DUI charge. Then she was reassigned to home detention by Sheriff Lee Baca because of undisclosed medical problems – only to be ordered back to jail the next day by the judge. Extremely close to her parents, Kathy, 48, and Rick, 51 – along with her siblings Nicky, 23, Barron, 17, and Conrad, 13 – she says she plans to spend time with her family, get back to work and change what people think of her. Hilton spoke with PEOPLE’s Jess Cagle and Elizabeth Leonard and answered questions about her time in jail, her plans for the future – and how she’s been hurt by her party-girl image. How did you feel leaving the jail?
I can’t even describe walking out of that place. It was like if someone could describe their wedding day or having a baby – it was that kind of happiness. 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.
In your journal, you write that this has been a “life-changing experience.” How so?
I’ve never felt happier. I’m grateful for everything. Even having a pillow at night or blankets – just things I never thought about. I saw the world in different eyes. I was stripped of everything. I was taken away from my family, I had my freedom taken away, everything.
Let’s go back to Sept. 7, the night of your DUI arrest. What happened?
I was shooting in Pasadena for my music video, and I had dinner reservations with my sister and some friends. The shooting ended up late. I had a couple of sips from my friend’s drink. I was starving because I didn’t get to eat dinner, so I drove a couple of blocks to In-N-Out [burger restaurant] and I got pulled over. It was a .08 [blood-alcohol level], which is the lowest possible you can have. I regret it. Since that night I never drank and drove again.
Why did you keep driving after your license was suspended?
I was under the impression that I did have my license. [I was advised] “You are not allowed to drive for 30 days, then 90 days after that you can drive to and from work.” During that 30-day period I never drove, and after that I drove for work-related purposes. Were you required to enroll in an alcohol education program? Yes. I completed it [around] two months ago.
Have you ever had a drinking problem?
No. I don’t even enjoy drinking.
When your 45-day jail sentence was handed down on May 4, there was a lot of gleeful public reaction, and a PEOPLE.com poll found that 78% of respondents think you got what you deserved. How does that feel?
I don’t know anyone who got that sentence for something like that. I wasn’t in there for a DUI. I was there for a suspended license. My parents were even told not to bother coming because it was a minor thing – just a few hours of community service.
PEOPLE.com also asked, “Was Paris sincere when she said she feels like a different person?” Again, most said no. What do you say to them?
That 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. How have your friends responded throughout everything?
I got home and my BlackBerry had 698 messages. It’s made me realize there are people I want to cut in my life and people who I want closer to me. Who would you want to cut? People who don’t have my best interest in mind. People who are negative.
Did Nicole Richie visit? Did you have contact with her?
Yeah, we spoke on the phone, but she was out of town at that point.
Prior to serving your sentence, you were spotted with self-help books and the Bible.
I don’t think anyone can really understand how it is to be in jail unless you’ve been in there. I was just trying to strengthen myself spiritually, and I continued to do so. I read The Power of Now, The Secret, The Alchemist. The Bible I read a lot.
What did you take away from that?
Just getting closer to God and my higher self. There was a nun who works at the jail for all the ladies, and she would come every day and we would pray. When I was alone I would pray to God to give me strength.
Describe checking into the Lynwood jail on June 3.
They do the [strip] search – which is humiliating enough – and fingerprints, mugshot, just like you would see in a movie. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
There was a lot said about getting rid of your hair extensions, but you were able to keep them in jail.
[They are from] my hair extension line DreamCatchers, and if they’re [woven] tight, you’re allowed to [keep them in].
Were you able to sleep?
No. I was terrified and I’m claustrophobic as it is. I was basically in the fetal position, basically in hysterics, terrified. And having severe anxiety and panic attacks. It’s all kind of a blur to me. It’s literally just a metal rod bunk bed with a green plastic mattress, one sheet and one very cheap blanket. It’s really cold, it’s really loud. The guards constantly are opening and shutting this huge metal door so there’s a lot of noise.
Were you in a cell alone?
Yes. What was the medical condition that led Sheriff Baca to want to release you?
The doctors were observing me while I was there. They explained to Sheriff Baca that they thought I was having severe anxiety, panic attacks, claustrophobia.
Were you taking any medication?
I have had ADD since I was a child and I take Adderall for that.
Sheriff Baca said several times that you were “deteriorating.” Did you feel suicidal?
No, I’ve never been like that.
What did you do when you were released to home detention on June 7?
My parents met me at the house. I sat on the grass with my puppies and played and made myself a sandwich and took a bath and went into bed.
How did you end up in the squad car going back to court?
I was literally in bed, just so happy to be home, and then all of a sudden I get a call that the police are on their way to pick me up. I was handcuffed, put into a cop car. I was terrified and upset and confused. I was humiliated that all these people were seeing me in the back of the cop car.
In the courtroom when Judge Sauer ordered you back to jail on June 8, you said, “It’s not right.” What were you referring to?
I wanted to give my mom a hug goodbye, and [the guards] just pulled me away. Just to be treated like a criminal when all I want is to give my mom a hug, I didn’t think it was right.
Is there anything you want to say to Judge Sauer?
I don’t know him personally so I don’t really have anything to say about him. A judge should be a fair person and I don’t think he was.
How was the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where you were sent next, different from Lynwood?
It’s a jail as well. I was in a cell, and it’s hard to sleep because it was loud at night – people banging on the walls and screaming.
That was in a medical center. Were you transferred there to be treated for ADD?
The sheriff said that with all the security issues at Lynwood and the overcrowding, that they wanted me [at Twin Towers] first. Then they moved me back to Lynwood. Did you ever feel threatened by a guard or an inmate?
No. I really respect the men and women who work in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. They were very professional and treated me well. 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.
What about daily life? How hard were basics like soap and shampoo to come by?
Every Monday they’d bring a sheet in and you could order the bare necessities. Not the best products, obviously, but you know you have to take what you can get. I ordered Top Ramen [noodles] and a lot of paper, pencils.
What did you eat?
Jail food is horrible. Breakfast would be like one hard-boiled egg and two pieces of wheat bread and an orange. Lunch was either a bologna sandwich – which I never ate ’cause I was scared to eat the bologna – or peanut butter and jelly, which used to be my favorite. I don’t think I ever want to see one of those again.
Did you lose weight?
Not really. I think five or six pounds.
Did you get to work out?
It’s such a small, confined space, so I would do sit-ups or push-ups.
Did you have any privacy?
There’s no privacy in jail. You’re in a cell, and there’s basically a window that the guards walk by and they’re looking through. The toilet is directly next to the bed, and the shower was directly next to all the other girls’ cells. I ordered flip-flops from the canteen because I was scared. They said there were a lot of weird things you can get from the shower. All the inmates use it. It’s a cold shower.
Were you ever embarrassed?
It was a really humbling experience. I don’t think I’ll ever be embarrassed of anything again.
How did you manage your claustrophobia?
I just meditated and sometimes imagined I wasn’t there and thought of the beach. Sometimes I’d sit and read letters from people. That was my escape. Reading and writing, trying not to focus on where I was.
Was there a point where you said, “I’m gonna make it”?
I knew I had to be there and there wasn’t any getting out of it. I just had compassion for these women [the other inmates]. I wanted to see this as a new beginning for me – a new beginning in the way I’m portrayed in the world. I feel like I can do so much more than what I’ve done. What did you mean when you told Barbara Walters that you “used to act dumb,” but that act “is no longer cute”?
I think being on [The Simple Life], people assume that’s how I really am. How I am in private is different than how I am in public.
Do you take any responsibility for the negative feeling some people have about you?
I think there is this person that is projected [by the media] that is twisted and distorted. The person that I read about is not who I am and who my friends know me to be. I’m just a normal girl trying to live life and live it to the fullest.
How do you see yourself within the young Hollywood scene?
I don’t consider myself in that scene. I have friends I’ve had since childhood.
Will you think twice now about going out to clubs or giving even the illusion of being the party girl?
Yeah. I’ve really grown and matured. I know there is so much more to life than that whole club scene. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s fun, I’m a social person, I love music. I love to dance. I love to hang out with my friends. But that’s not what I care about as much anymore. Obviously I’ll still go out sometimes; I’m young and I like to be social, but I’m gonna focus more on my work.
How does it feel to finally be home?
I feel so grateful for everything. Being in my own clothes again instead of those itchy orange outfits. I used to love the color orange but I never want to wear orange again.
What are you taking away from this whole experience?
It was a horrible experience, but at the same time it’s something that made me a stronger person. I know that I can get through anything and do anything now that I went through that.