Transgender inmate fights for survival in Georgia prison

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Ky Peterson, a black trans man, is incarcerated in a central Georgia prison for killing his rapist. Imprisoned in a women's facility during his 20-year sentence, Peterson faces guards that misgender and mistreat him and a struggle for the trans-related healthcare he needs.

Pinky Shear, his partner, spoke with Project Q Atlanta about the difficulty she’s faced making sure what little access Peterson (top photo) has to gender affirming products – even simple things such as boxers – are protected.

“It’s probably been six months fighting the prison to get them to have, to put boxer shorts on the stores. So he can have boxer shorts. So the other guys can get boxer shorts, too,” Shear said.

The “other guys” Shear is referring to are other transgender men in Peterson’s facility: Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, Ga., about 45 minutes south of Macon.

Trans people are about six times more likely to end up in prison or jail than the general population, according to a report from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Not only were transgender people – particularly trans people of color – more likely to be incarcerated, but they are more likely to experience harassment and transphobia along the way, the report found.

It was mistreatment while incarcerated – Peterson overheard a guard supervisor direct derogatory comments toward a trans inmate – that prompted him to want to speak out about his experiences.

“The captain said, ‘Hey, you got raped because someone needed to remind you you were female,’ is basically what the guy said to this kid. And I think that was probably the last straw,” Shear (second photo) said.

More than just speaking out, Peterson, with the help of his partner, are pressing prison officials to provide the transgender-related care they are legally obligated to offer.

In 2015, Ashley Diamond, a trans woman being held in a men’s prison, was released early after she sued the Georgia Department of Corrections over her mistreatment. She alleged the she was repeatedly raped, denied medical treatments to the hormones she had been taking for 17 years, and otherwise abused while in prison. The mistreatment caused her to suffer dysphoria and depression, and become suicidal.

Diamond was released last year just days after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed additional documents in lawsuit that included sworn statements from other trans inmates alleging that they were also denied trans-related medical care. 

“[Diamond] won her case. She sued on the federal level and she won. The federal government sided with her. And as a result the State of Georgia now has to provide care, medical care, and safe housing for transgender inmates. But the State of Georgia doesn’t know how to do that,” Shear said.

Now, Peterson is trying to figure out what it will take for trans inmates at Pulaski to receive gender-affirming care while pressing prison officials to follow through on its policy changes impacting hormone treatment for trans inmates. He received his first dose of hormone therapy in February – months after a suicide attempt, according to the Advocate.

“We’ve been recording each and every step as we go: how do you get the gender letter, how do you get your hormones, how do you get your binder, how do you get the clothing, you know what I am saying?” Shear said. “So he’s taking all of these steps and we’re kind of building almost like a handbook. And passing it out to the other guys who are in there so they can start their process.”


'Is he going to kill me?'


As Peterson approached his fifth anniversary in prison, he described what he faced in a post to Freeing Ky, a blog published by Philadelphia-based trans advocate Christian Lovehall. 

Prison is especially difficult for people with unique medical circumstances, like being trans. I know that someday I will be going home and I refuse to accept the “institutionalized prisoner” mentality that I have seen other people get. Those are the people who have given up hope, they see no better future for themselves…It’s not just about abiding by the rules and doing time until they let you out. That’s the easy road. I wanted to be better when I leave here, than I was when I got here. I wanted to find things to do that would be beneficial for me and to just help me make it through my time.

Peterson is serving a 20-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter after killing the man that was raping him and yelling homophobic slurs in 2011 in an Americus trailer park. Involuntary manslaughter carries a 10-year maximum sentence, but errors in the sentencing process resulted in a prison term twice the state maximum, according to the Advocate.

The sentencing disparity is just one of many mishaps that ultimately landed Peterson in Pulaski.

Peterson spent 366 days in a county jail before he met with a public defender. And the attorney, juggling 200 cases at the time, saw him only a handful of times and failed to advise Peterson that he could use a stand your ground defense. Shear, acting on behalf of Peterson, never received an evidence package, despite multiple requests. 

The Advocate has chronicled Peterson’s story, documenting what happened to Peterson starting the night he was raped – for the second time in his life.

“I freaked out,” Peterson tells The Advocate. “I screamed.” He kept screaming — in pain, in fear. Perhaps, also, in surprise: It was happening again. He was being raped on his walk home, and no one would help him. Especially not the police. Last time he was attacked in his own neighborhood, the cops could barely be bothered to file the report, and thinking they’d investigate? Maybe even arrest the guy? A fantasy.

This was reality. This moment. Live or die. 

Peterson hollered again. Adrenaline kicked in, an animal instinct: fight or flight. He struck out at the man, who struck back. They struggled, and in the split seconds Peterson’s thoughts fought for attention in his pounding head: How long was I unconscious? How do I get to the door? What hit me in the back of the skull? 

Is he going to kill me? 

Suddenly, the pitch black of the trailer revealed a slice of murky light. Peterson heard two familiar voices shouting: his younger brothers. They must have trailed home from the store a few minutes after him, following the trio’s usual path back through the trailer park. He heard the two boys call his name; he heard the sound of their sneakers scuff on the floor as they pulled at his attacker. He took a gulp of air as the stranger’s weight was thrown off of him, heard their voices raised in an argument. He knew he couldn’t lay still there, even as his injuries revealed themselves to him in a wave of aches.

He stood up, now on one side of the trailer with his two brothers flanking him. He saw the shadowed figure of the naked stranger charging forward. He didn't have time to think as his fingers grasped the smooth metal of the gun he'd started carrying in his backpack as a nighttime precaution ever since his first rape.

Then Peterson made a decision he'd hoped he’d never have to. He pulled the trigger.

Once the police got involved in Peterson’s case, things only got worse. Although the clinic staff was gentler with him than the cops had been, a nurse told him, “You don't seem like a rape victim to me,” even though his rape kit came back positive. Via the Advocate:

Peterson spent the next 366 days in a county jail. During that year-long detention, he says he was never formally advised of the charges against him, nor was he offered meetings with the public defender who would ultimately encourage him to take a plea deal, he tells The Advocate. 

His public defender, David Grindle, had no idea Peterson was transgender, a fact Peterson also kept from police during the initial investigation, not knowing what would happen if he did reveal his status. Grindle, too, had difficulties providing effective counsel.

Via the Advocate:

Peterson's case was one of more than 200 on Grindle's active caseload at the time. Nevertheless, Grindle also readily acknowledges that he was not eager to take Peterson's case to trial. Despite filing 23 motions alleging myriad constitutional violations – what the former public defender says is standard practice in Georgia for defense attorneys hoping to protect their clients – Grindle says his own investigation led him to believe none of those motions were “viable.”

“The bottom line is, in a criminal case, the client is presumed guilty, even though that's not the law,” Grindle explains. 

Fast forward, and Peterson, like McDonald, takes a plea deal, unsure what else to do, clearly dealing with a system that does not believe someone like him can be a victim. Via the Advocate:

In August 2012, Peterson signed a deal that saw him plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, according to Georgia law. But Peterson was sentenced to 20 years, with 15 to serve in confinement. 

When asked about this discrepancy, Grindle was caught off-guard.  

“My memory is it was a voluntary manslaughter plea,” Grindle says. “But if what the plea agreement says is involuntary, then I effectively committed ineffective assistance of counsel. And if that's the case, I apparently made a major mistake.”

“I'm disappointed in myself if that's what I let happen,” Grindle sighs. “But if that's the case, and the maximum … is 10 years, then I screwed up. So did the [district attorney], and so did the judge.”


'It's any day now'


During his time at Pulaski, Peterson has enrolled in GED classes and received his degree, and taken meditation classes and life skills classes. “I don’t let where I am break me, instead I use it to build myself up into the person I know is inside me,” he wrote on Freeing Ky.

In addition to the Advocate tracking Peterson's case, Shear speaks publicly about it, including during an appearance ahead of the Trans March during Atlanta Pride in October (bottom photo). Shear's efforts also include The Free Ky Project on Facebook and Funding Freedom, an online campaign that has raised nearly $11,000 in donations from more than 100 people.

Peterson became eligible for parole on Oct. 30. He and Shear are awaiting a decision from state prison officials.

“We are waiting, like it’s any day now,” Shear said.

Steve Hayes, communications director for the State Board of Pardons & Paroles, said there is no timetable on when the board could reach a decision.

“The board will be making a decision in this case which could be made at anytime,” Hayes said.

For Peterson’s partner Shear, what she has witnessed around the treatment he has received and how his case has unfolded, has left her with strong criticisms of the criminal justice system.

She spoke about her frustrations, for instance, of seeing male college students accused of rape getting “away with committing a crime, serv[ing] zero time for committing a crime that Ky is serving 15 years for defending himself against. That is really sick.”

And, while data clearly shows that race plays a factor in who is stopped by police, who is incarcerated, and what type of sentences they face, living that reality is wholly different.

“That’s the thing that really bothers me is how racist the entire system is. Fundamentally from the ground up. From the police straight on up to the judges, straight on up to the prison system,” Shears said.

Peterson, who did not respond to requests for an interview through a monitored prison email system, faces a criminal justice system that seems to provide few options for justice for people who are black, transgender, and survivors of violence.

Yet he somehow has optimism about building a future for himself. Via Freeing Ky:

The word “Transition” is used by Doctors to describe the process that someone like me has to go through in order to make their physical body match their inner body.  Before I started my physical transition,  it was really important that I go through a personal and spiritual transition….I have faced my past, I accept the fate that was dealt to me, and I can only do my best to create a better path for myself. I know that my path will cross with many others, and I hope that I can help other people rise up in the future. 


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