Surviving Alleged Abuse, Suicide Attempt, Ky Peterson Won't Stay Silent
Ky Peterson, the 23-year-old black Georgia trans man imprisoned for killing his rapist, survived taking a lethal dose of seizure medication Tegretol June 3, while held in an isolated “segregation” cell at Pulaski State Prison, an all-female facility in Hawkinsville, Ga.
It’s a frightening turn in a story filled with years of seeming institutional disregard for Peterson’s well-being that The Advocate has been covering since releasing an April investigative report on his case, “This Black Trans Man Is in Prison for Killing His Rapist.”
When The Advocate last spoke to Peterson’s mother, Marlene Peterson, following news of her son’s near-death, a mystery clung to the event for her: How was Ky able to access an estimated 100 pills while being held alone in a cell?
Peterson himself, after being detained in isolation for more than two weeks following his nearly fatal overdose, has finally been able to answer that question for The Advocate.
More than a week before he was taken to “lockdown,” Peterson says a correctional officer placed the plastic bag of pink pills, which belonged to another prisoner, among his personal belongings. Then, Peterson says he watched as the correctional officer responsible for confiscating dangerous objects before lockdown filled out a form as if she'd done a thorough inspection, despite not having looked carefully. The Tegretol apparently slipped past this final checkpoint and ended up in Peterson’s locker in the segregation unit, where he would sit alone for over a week, exhibiting clear emotional distress and asking for mental health counseling.
Peterson says he was initially surprised the medication was allowed to remain with him in lockdown, but then he considered past experiences of alleged staff neglect. “They don’t care what’s yours and what’s not,” he explains. “Because when I told them that I had things missing from my property, they said, ‘Well, the officer said she picked up all of your stuff.’ But I never find my inventory sheet.”
His loved ones and Peterson himself maintain that he’s never felt suicidal. But the black trans man — who alleges he was unfairly imprisoned for killing in self-defense, is "harassed" regularly by prison staff, and has never received trauma counseling for the brutal rape that led up to his incarceration — says he hit a new emotional wall the morning he concluded that he needed to do whatever it took to “go unconscious” for a while.
Peterson says he was seeking a brief reprieve from what he felt was a never-ending, hopeless repetition of facing “excessive force” and verbal abuse from correctional staff, oftentimes for perceived infractions he says were exaggerated or never even occurred. It’s a pattern that he says has not changed to this day, still putting him at risk for more mental trauma.
The hopelessness Peterson reports feeling is not uncommon for transgender people in prison. And the damage done by long-term incarceration is exacerbated by what Peterson and prison reform advocates see as the overuse of isolation, also known as "segregation" or, as prison reform advocates more curtly label it, solitary confinement.
All told, Peterson spent more than three weeks in isolation in the wake of this latest incident, with limited access to human interaction, and no fellow inmates to engage with.
"Solitary confinement is terrible for everyone, but risks for trans people are heightened in a few ways," explains attorney Gabriel Arkles, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University School of Law, and a collective and board member for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. "First, trans people are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than cis [nontrans] people."
While some prisons place transgender inmates in isolation allegedly "for their own protection" or because they are considered "disruptive" in the general population, advocates stress that the most common reason any prisoner — transgender or cisgender — is placed in segregation is as a punitive disciplinary measure.
“Expressions of gender identity, like having a bra or nail polish in a men’s prison or having facial hair or boxers in a women’s prison, can be punished with solitary confinement,” explains Arkles, who is familiar with Peterson’s story but is not representing him. “Guards also sometimes profile trans people and discipline them for things they didn’t do. In women’s prisons, guards often assume that masculine trans people are responsible for violence or rule-breaking of any kind.”
This is the type of experience Peterson tells The Advocate he's endured for the past three years. Facing another 17 years of his sentence (with 12 in confinement) for an “involuntary manslaughter” conviction, Peterson admits he’s now reached a new depth of despair after feeling like no matter what he does — even if he tells the truth of mistreatment he’s faced from correctional staff — he will not be believed, and will be punished instead.
Everything finally came to a head May 26, Peterson says. While he steadfastly maintains that his decision to take the Tegretol was not a suicide attempt, he does acknowledge that he experienced an emotional lapse in judgment that made him desperate to temporarily escape his reality. The seeds of that desperation were planted eight days earlier, the morning he was sent to lockdown after he says prison staff misconstrued his listlessness from illness as “insubordination.”
The morning of May 26, near the end of a routine daily room inspection, Peterson says he felt too weak to remain on his feet for the duration of the inspection, which requires prisoners to stand by their doors for over an hour. He’d been experiencing dizziness and nausea from taking his antidepressant, Effexor, that morning. Crushed up and dissolved in water, the extended-release medication hits the body powerfully when it is removed from its capsule, says Peterson — and that morning, the effects were too much for him to take.
Shortly after he sat down, dazed, Peterson says he heard a voice call him “disrespectful.” It was that of Officer Lawrence Whittington, the building manager. When Peterson explained, “I’m not feeling good right now, I’m really sick,” he could see something in the man’s eyes, he says: “I could tell he didn’t care.”
The situation then quickly escalated, to the point that the Community Emergency Response Team was deployed to subdue Peterson for failure to follow orders, he recalls. The CERT has been described to The Advocate as the prison equivalent of a SWAT team.
Peterson says he agreed to stand by his door to avoid further confrontation, but that the CERT leader had already decided Peterson was going to lockdown. Peterson protested, repeating that he was sick, but says, “Nobody was listening. And then one of the officers took out the can of pepper spray. She didn’t display it, she just sprayed me with it.”
Shocked and in pain, Peterson at this point yelled and tried to pull away from the guards, he says. He was sprayed a second time in the face, then wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. His pants were now pulled below his knees in the scuffle, and Peterson says he felt humiliated to be exposed as he was carried to lockdown, his leg shackles too tight to even allow him to walk.
A copy of the incident report obtained by The Advocate from the Georgia Department of Corrections corroborates Peterson’s framing of the moments leading up to him being pepper-sprayed. The document, which uses female pronouns to refer to Peterson throughout, confirms that “Unit Manager Whittington instructed inmate Peterson several times to return to the outside of [his] door until the inspection team left the building. Inmate Peterson refused all instructions and became loud and disrespectful.”
According to Whittington's account of the interaction, as recorded in the incident report, Peterson repeatedly refused the officer's instructions to stand and put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed. That refusal was what prompted Whittington to instruct officer Sirena Jackson to utilize the pepper spray, described in the incident report as "OC spray."
“Inmate continued to refuse so officers were backing out of the cell to allow the OC spray to work,” Whittington continued in his written account. “As the last staff member exited the cell, I observed inmate Peterson with what appeared to be a razor blade and [he] was beginning to cut [himself] with it.”
Peterson denies that he had the razor or that he was trying to cut himself, though he does acknowledge that he "became wild" after being pepper-sprayed twice. Officer Jackson's report confirms that she did indeed spray Peterson twice, then helped to restrain his arms and legs as he was shackled.
While the official incident report states that Peterson was indeed carried out from his dorm, it makes no mention of Peterson's state of dress at that time. The entire incident was captured on two cameras — one handheld and one body camera — but The Advocate's request to review that video was denied, citing a "pending investigation."
Peterson was taken to a “segregation” cell for the next eight days. He sat alone for nearly 24 hours a day over the next week on the metal slab that served as his bed, he says. He was allowed access to personal items, and though inmates in segregation sometimes have a roommate, Peterson didn't have one this time. The personal effects and the potential for a roommate are the only amenities that separate “segregation” from the next disciplinary step, full-blown “isolation,” Peterson explains.
When he wasn’t sitting contemplating his anguish about what he percieved as the outsized response to his “insubordination,” Peterson says he was either sleeping or banging on the door to ask if he could see his mental health counselor and file a report disputing the staff’s version of events.
Peterson grew frustrated and desperate, he says. “I kept trying to talk to people ... tell them what happened as far as how I got to lockdown, and no one would listen," he recalls. "I’m telling them that the things that was on the [disciplinary report] was a lie, and they don’t care. … Nobody asked me to write a statement about what happened.”
The official incident report from Pulaski indicates that Peterson refused to give a statement to officers about the pepper-spray incident. It also claims that a mental health counselor was called to Peterson's cell and spoke with him shortly after he was placed in segregation.
This wasn’t the first time that Peterson had been given disciplinary reports by correctional officers that didn’t seem to tell the whole story, he says. Sometimes, he believes the officers fabricate details on such reports to justify harsher punishment.
“The staff continue to say things to try to get a rise out of me,” he shares, saying he sometimes feels targeted because his masculinity makes him stick out in the women's prison. “They don’t even have to be honest on the [disciplinary] ticket. The officer will tell you, ‘Well, they’re going to believe me because I work here. They’re not going to believe you; you’re an inmate.’ And I’ve found in most cases [that’s] true — especially when it comes to mine.”
On June 3, eight days after being placed in lockdown, Peterson said he tried one more time to knock on his cell door and ask to see his mental health counselor. “‘That’s not going to help anything, banging on the door,’” he recalls a correctional officer yelling back.
“I just remember thinking like, ‘You know what? I don’t care. I’m just going to go sleep.’ But then I think that, ‘I have some pills in my locker. I’m pretty sure they’ll knock me out if I take some.’ So that’s what I done,” Peterson recalls.
“After I took the first handful, I remember somebody coming to the door and they were still screaming at me. And it was really making me mad because they’re screaming and I’m already angry and feeling some kinda way, and nobody’s listening. So I took more pills.”
Peterson says he fell down almost immediately and has no memory of what happened next, including how guards realized that he had overdosed.
The Pulaski State Prison incident report, which labels the June 3 overdose as a "suicide attempt," notes that Peterson had been "screaming and beating on [his] locker box" for some time. According to that document, Peterson had covered the window of his cell with a piece of paper, which he reportedly refused to remove until a mental health counselor came to the door and entered the cell. That mental health counselor, identified only as "M/H Cheeks" in the document, reportedly witnessed Peterson take a handful of unknown pink pills.
Officer Joanne Harrell’s account reports that Peterson was “very disoriented and sluggish in the cell.” She reportedly observed Peterson getting "about eight ... pink-looking pills out of the sink” and taking them.
“I spoke with inmate Peterson and [he] stated ‘I’m tired Ms. Harrell,’ and then took up to three more pills off the floor and took them,” Harrell’s report continues. “While in the infirmary [he] stated [he] had taken 20 pills earlier that day and taken the rest when [he] was approached in [segregation]. Inmate Peterson stated that was holding the pills for a Birthday Party. [He] became unresponsive and the medical nurses and Cert team member began CPR.”
The incident report confirms that Peterson was transported to the infirmary, where he became unresponsive. “Once in infirmary inmate Peterson[’s] blood pressure dropped and lost pulse,” writes Officer Taja Wadley, who performed CPR until paramedics arrived. “I cut off inmate Peterson[’s] sweat shirt and bra. I gave compressions until inmate Peterson began to breathe.”
Peterson was transferred to Taylor Regional Hospital via ambulance at 5:05 p.m. June 6, according to the incident report. He was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit two hours later. Eventually, he was transferred to Lee Arrendale State Prison, where Peterson contends he was once again held in isolation. On June 16, he was brought back to Pulaski, where he was returned to his regular dorm.
Reflecting on the life-threatening incident, Peterson is eager to commend the handful of “good officers” at Pulaski “that actually care about the inmates and our safety.”
One of those is Officer Wadley, who Peterson says has previously shown him kindness. Notably, Wadley's statement in the incident report was the only one from an officer directly involved that avoided using female pronouns to describe Peterson. Two other officers who assisted in escorting Peterson to the infirmary also avoided using any pronouns in their reports.
“There’s a few officers that really helped with what was going on,” Peterson tells The Advocate. “I’m so grateful to [Officer Wadley] because she saved my life. ... It’s those few people who make it a little bit easier, or at least try to make it a little bit easier for us.”
Then he adds:
“But then you have those officers that constantly harass inmates. They follow inmates around all day, they’re always saying something. And they say the meanest, nastiest things to people. Even they make comments that they’re not supposed to make, and it’s OK for them to do that because everybody is so afraid to say something. [Inmates have] noticed that if they say something, something happens to you — so nobody ever wants to speak up around here.”
Although every prison in the country has a formal system through which inmates can file grievances, these systems are exceedingly complex and daunting to navigate, says Alan Mills, the executive director of Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago and an attorney who has been representing prisoners and former prisoners kept in solitary confinement since 1982.
"Very few grievance systems I’ve seen are effective in the sense that they’re really designed to solve problems," Mills tells The Advocate. "Those are not designed to provide relief to prisoners. Those are designed to trip people up so that when they ultimately go to court, they’ve made some procedural error, and you’ve got to throw the case out."
“You tend to have very short deadlines for prisoners making complaints, and very complex appeal procedures which, if they miss any of the steps of, they may be barred from bringing any sort of federal, and increasingly, state court claims — forever,” Mills adds. “Because they messed up their grievance procedure.”
Like other experts and prison reform advocates, Mills stresses that solitary confinement isn't good for anyone. But particularly for those already struggling with their mental health — with conditions like Peterson's diagnosed depression — extended periods of isolation can make things worse.
The average, nonincarcerated person moving through the world makes countless calculations daily regarding how to interact with other humans, Mills says. On a crowded sidewalk, passersby must judge instantaneously if someone bumping into them is an act of aggression or simply the result of a dense crowd. When speaking to another person, everyone makes slight, subconscious judgments about how far to stand from that person, whether to make direct eye contact or perhaps divert their gaze to a partner's nose, forehead, mouth, or chin. These judgments are informed by social mores, nonverbal cues, and subconcious decisions that most people make "without thinking about it at all," Mills explains.
“Somebody who has been in solitary for any length of time loses all that subconscious ability to make all those decisions,” Mills continues. “So they have to view each of those tiny interactions as a potential threat. And that means that their brains are constantly flooded with adrenaline. And that is what PTSD is. Your brain is being flooded with adrenaline all the time, for things that most people aren’t.”
"The longer you’re in there, the worse it gets," Mills adds. “That’s why the effect of being in solitary lasts longer than being in solitary. It’s not like it goes away once you’re back in the general population or even out in the world, outside of prison altogether. All of a sudden you have to make all these decisions; you have to deal with people, which you haven’t had to do for, sometimes, as long as several decades. And you just lose all those skills.”
So it's not surprising that Peterson, whose stint in solitary in late May and early June was not his first, is still struggling with the residual effects of spending more than three weeks with little or no interaction with other humans.
Once the hospital gave Peterson a clean bill of health following his Tegretol overdose, he says he was once again placed in isolation at Lee Arrendale, a medium-security women's facility in Alto, Ga., while he awaited transfer back to Pulaski.
“They just asked questions [about whether I was feeling suicidal] and then they stuck me in a room by myself again,” Peterson says. “And I told them that was the problem. That was why I took the pills.”
Peterson says that he cannot fathom why prison officials would put him in isolation again after a clear mental health crisis. But the picture he paints of his daily handling from correctional staff seems to indicate that a large part of him understands all too well how this could happen in such an unsympathetic environment.
He recalls stories of one particular male officer who has seemed to seek Peterson out for ridicule, and who Peterson senses may have started retaliating against him with harsher treatment following media attention in April. He recounts one interaction that’s stayed with him: the officer forcing him to stand outside and talk to a tree as a consequence for speaking in the dining hall — an infraction Peterson says never happened in the first place. Peterson distances himself from the memories of humiliation with a small laugh and wonders aloud why he’s never seen another inmate ordered to talk to trees.
Despite facing the threat of this type of treatment daily, Peterson says he’s happy he survived the potentially lethal overdose. When he awoke in a hospital bedroom, unable to speak because an intubation tube filled his throat, he realized the gravity of having gone from a man who loved life to one lying nearly dead on a cold, metal floor.
“I wondered if anyone would miss me. If anything would be different,” he muses.
His “anyone” does not include mother Marlene Peterson and partner Pinky Shear, who have both been tireless in trying to contact him and ascertain whether he’s safe. Shear, in particular, has been dogged in keeping readers of Ky’s blog updated on his experiences in Pulaski, and has spent hours working to send prison officials medical documentation of his gender dysphoria so he can request access to testosterone therapy.
Rather, Peterson wonders in a grander sense if the world cares to know of his preventable brush with death, and the fact that he and other inmates face daily abuse he says goes far beyond correctional officers’ mandate to keep prisoners controlled.
He questions what he sees as the overly punitive use of lockdown and the way that inmates being offered the option of filing grievances over staff misconduct seems like mere lip service, since those forms rarely seem to prompt any follow-up.
His unanswered questions are compounded by experiences in which he says his gender identity is pointedly targeted by correctional officers who allegedly insist he’s a lesbian when they learn he’s a transgender man.
“If you tell someone they are not who they know themselves to be, deny them care crucial to their mental health, assault them, and place them in solitary confinement, you have done them serious psychological harm,” concludes Arkles, the Northeastern University School of Law professor and transgender attorney. “It would be almost miraculous for someone to emerge from solitary confinement under those circumstances unscathed.”
At his darkest moments, Peterson fears that sticking his neck out may attract even more unwanted attention from correctional staff. But he remains resolute that it’s the only chance he has right now to possibly change his small world for the better.
“I’m not afraid of their punishment, even sending me to lockdown, because at the end of the day I know it was for a good reason,” he reflects. “I’m not going to continue to be silent and continue to watch these things happen that are happening at this prison. Someone needs to say something. Something needs to be done. I mean, if nobody ever says nothing, nothing’s going to change.”
Peterson dreams of one day becoming a motivational speaker, touring the country and inspiring other transgender people to find hope in even the bleakest of circumstances. “If that’s what my plans are when I get out,” he concludes contemplatively, “I have to start somewhere. I have to not be afraid to tell the truth.”
Check back this week to hear more stories in The Advocate's Boys Do Cry series, which pulls back the curtain on trans men's experiences with violence.
If you or someone you know are a transgender or gender-nonconforming individual struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can contact the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. LGBT young people (ages 24 and younger) needing support can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.