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.”

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Ky Peterson's only connection to the outside world, including his partner and his mother, is through this grainy video chat at Pulaski State Prison.

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.”

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Still, the question remains for Marlene Peterson (pictured at right with a young Ky), girlfriend Pinky Shear, and the hundreds who are now following Peterson’s case in The Advocate: What led to Ky Peterson ingesting a deadly dose of the medication?

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.

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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.