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Trapped in a Transphobic Hell: Ky Peterson and the Trials of Trans People in Prison

Trans prisoners routinely experience medical violence.

Ky Peterson. (Photo: Courtesy of Freedom Overground)

On October 28, 2011, 20-year-old Ky Peterson was sitting outside a convenience store waiting for his brothers when a man approached and began asking him questions about his gender identity.

Peterson, a Black trans man living in Americus, Georgia, began to feel uncomfortable. He had already been assaulted several times, both physically and sexually. After the first rape, he started carrying a gun in his bag. The man’s questions, coupled with his attempts to stand over and then sit next to Peterson, raised red flags, so Peterson decided to leave. As he was walking through a trailer park toward home, he felt something hit him in the back of his head.

He awoke inside a strange trailer; the man was raping him. Peterson screamed and hit his assailant, who hit him back. A few minutes later, Peterson’s brothers, who had been walking past and heard his screams, pulled the man off him. When the man charged at him, Peterson pulled the gun from his backpack, shot and killed him.

From his past experiences with the local police, Peterson knew that they would not take seriously his accusations of rape. They had not investigated his report after his first sexual assault. Furthermore, he and his brothers all had had previous encounters with law enforcement — his youngest brother, a 14-year-old, had been sent to juvenile detention after violent outbursts at school; his 16-year-old brother was on an ankle monitor. Peterson himself had had previous encounters with law enforcement for minor incidents — a probation violation, two separate incidents of disorderly conduct and civil contempt.

Even without those past childhood records, he and his brothers were Black and living in a trailer park. Peterson expected little, if any, understanding from the police and courts.

The three brothers returned to the trailer later that night to bury the body in the woods. Once in the woods, a passing car startled Peterson and he left the body.

The next morning, police arrived at the trailer that he shared with his mom and siblings. They took Peterson to the precinct, where he was questioned for hours. Then, they drove him to a local clinic for a rape exam. “The lady who did [the] rape kit told me that I didn’t look like a victim,” Peterson recalled. The test confirmed that Peterson had recently endured forceful vaginal and anal penetration. An autopsy of the attacker found Peterson’s DNA on the man’s penis. Still, the police clung to the theory that Peterson, whom they assumed to be a woman, had lured the man into a trailer with promises of sex and set him up to be robbed by his brothers.

Peterson spent the next year in jail, charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault, felony murder, possession of a firearm and “malice murder,” a Georgia-specific charge for a homicide committed with expressed or inferred intent to kill.

“I feel like the police, clinic, jail and court system didn’t want to believe that I was attacked because of how I looked,” Peterson wrote. He noted that, though the police and prosecutors had DNA evidence, “in their minds, I had to be punished for not being the typical sexual assault victim.” At the advice of his attorney, Peterson pled guilty to what he thought was involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. But according to the transcripts, he pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. At sentencing, the prosecutor acknowledged that Peterson had been raped but continued to cling to the robbery theory, pushing for a 20-year sentence.

Peterson is now serving that 20-year sentence at the Pulaski State Prison, a medium security prison for women in Hawkinsville, a town of less than five thousand residents.

No agency keeps track of how many people are incarcerated for defending themselves. There are only anecdotes of those whose cases garner headlines — Marissa Alexander in Florida, CeCe McDonald in Minnesota and Cherelle Baldwin in Connecticut are only a handful of examples.

At the same time, no one knows how many trans people are imprisoned across the United States. The Bureau of Justice estimates that between 2011 and 2012, there were 3,209 trans people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and another 1,709 trans people in local jails. But these are guesstimates at best; many jail and prison administrators deny that trans people are in their facilities at all.

In Prison and at Risk for Rape

In 2012, the same year that Peterson was sentenced and sent to prison, Ashley Diamond attempted to buy $9 worth of stencils. Unknown to her, the stencils had been stolen, and Diamond was arrested for attempting to buy stolen property. That arrest triggered a violation of her 15-year probation on a previous charge — attempting to pawn a saw that also turned out to be stolen. Perhaps the judges would have been more lenient with her had she been white or had she not been trans. But Diamond is a Black, openly trans woman living in Rome, Georgia, a town of 36,000 people. For these two incidents, the judge sentenced her to 12 years in prison.

Diamond was sent to Macon, one of Georgia’s maximum-security men’s prisons. “I hadn’t been there 30 days when I was gang-raped and beaten, tied up in a sheet and left for dead,” she told Truthout. She was taken to an outside medical hospital where the doctor did his best to treat her. “He was a godsend,” Diamond recalled. But the doctor had no control over how long prison officials would allow her to stay in his care; she was soon returned to prison and placed in solitary confinement. The next day, she was sent to another maximum-security prison where, she said, “the same thing happened again.” This time, she was not sent to the hospital; she was, however, sent to another prison, where the same thing happened again. Overall, Diamond suffered no less than seven brutal sexual assaults.

Diamond’s experience is not unusual. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, between 2011 and 2012, 24 percent of trans people in prison have been sexually assaulted by other prisoners, and 11 percent have been assaulted by staff. In a survey by Black and Pink, an organization that supports LGTBQ people behind bars, 31 percent (or more than 130 people) of the 1,118 respondents reported having been sexually assaulted. Seventy-six percent of those who had been assaulted by other prisoners reported that staff had intentionally placed them in situations that increased the likelihood of assault.

This happened to Lani, a white trans woman, who has been incarcerated in for-profit men’s prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in Tennessee. At one prison, she was housed in a location that was not visible from the prison’s surveillance cameras; there, she was sexually assaulted repeatedly. At one point, she said that staff allowed her attacker into her cell while the prison was locked down for “count” (a daily procedure in which each and every incarcerated person must stay in their cell to be counted).

Lani reported the attacks but said that staff did not believe her. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) requires that jails and prisons, including privately run facilities, offer rape crisis services, including counseling and emergency medical services, to survivors behind bars. Though the prison was audited and certified as PREA compliant, Lani was not offered any such services.

Lani is now at another prison, where she shares a cell with her cousin, who has been ensuring her safety. “But that could change at any moment if either of them gets transferred,” Lani’s partner Dodie Larue told Truthout.

A Request for Medical Care Leads to Isolation and Overdose

For Peterson, in a women’s prison, threats of harassment and violence come not from the other incarcerated people, but from staff, says his partner Pinky Shear. Moreover, physical and sexual assaults aren’t the only form of violence that trans people, including Diamond, Peterson and countless others, endure behind bars. There’s also medical violence, including the denial of hormones and other medications.

Until 2015, Georgia’s prison policy denied any new hormone treatment to trans prisoners. Diamond, who had been taking hormones for the past 17 years, should have been permitted to continue to take hormones at the same levels as before. But at each prison, officials refused to allow her to continue these medications. Diamond started to become physically sick from the denial of hormones.

From solitary confinement, where she had been placed after being sexually assaulted, Diamond filed suit. Ultimately, she not only secured hormone treatment for herself, but also forced the Georgia Department of Corrections to end its blanket denial of new hormone therapy.

Diamond’s victory encouraged Peterson, who had not been on hormones before his arrest, to request treatment.

Peterson’s partner, Pinky Shear, compiled an information packet about the importance of medical treatment for trans people, including a copy of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care, an assessment by a clinical social worker confirming that Peterson met the criteria for a gender dysphoria diagnosis, and resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Transgender Law Center detailing the federal guidelines for trans people in prison. She also included a letter, citing her existing power of attorney over Peterson’s medical, financial and legal matters during his incarceration, requesting that he be given hormone therapy and pointing to the Department of Corrections’ new standards on health care for trans people.

Despite all of this, Peterson’s conversation with the prison’s warden did not go well. “I explained that I have identified, and had been living as a male since childhood,” he wrote. “She said that since I wasn’t on hormones prior to being arrested, she didn’t have to comply with my treatment or acknowledge my preferred gender, name or pronouns.” Peterson was instead prescribed Effexor, an antidepressant, which made him feel nauseous.

In Pulaski, administrators conduct daily inspections of every unit. Staff inspect every person’s appearance while the Critical Emergency Response Team (CERT), the prison equivalent of a SWAT team, inspects each cell. Throughout the inspection, which can last up to two hours, all prisoners are expected to stand by their doors.

On May 28, 2015, five days after his conversation with the warden, Peterson felt dizzy and nauseated during the daily inspection. Nonetheless, he stood during the process and, as the team was leaving the dorm, sat down. An administrator saw him and demanded that he stand by the door. Peterson refused, explaining that the medications were making him sick. In response, the CERT team entered his cell.

“They grab me and begin to pull me to the door, but I pull away and ask why they won’t leave me alone cause I haven’t done anything wrong,” Peterson described in a journal entry. “They see this as insubordination, and force me on the ground to handcuff me. I is already sick and barely able to struggle, yet one CERT member pepper spays me in the face TWICE. During the struggle to pull me down, one of the officers pulled down my pants. They carried me out of the room, handcuffed, pepper sprayed in the face, with my pants (and underwear) around my knees. I was take to the showers in lockdown and told to clean up, then put in a freezing solitary cell for hours.” He was issued disciplinary reports for failing to follow directions and insubordination.

Six days later, Peterson was still in isolation when he was finally given some of his belongings, plus a plastic bag filled with Tegretol, which was not one of his medications.

Peterson’s repeated requests to see a counselor were ignored. Instead, officers repeatedly told him to kill himself, often banging on his door and waking him. Peterson later told Shear that, each time the officers woke him, he took more pills until he lost count. “I wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to sleep through lockdown,” he told her.

He was brought to an outside hospital where he was treated for the overdose before being sent to Lee Arrendale State Prison, a medium-security women’s prison, where he was held in isolation. Ten days after his overdose, he was returned to Pulaski and placed in a dorm.

Seven months after his overdose and hospitalization, in February 2016, Peterson began receiving hormones.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, Lani has had no trouble continuing her hormone treatment in CCA-run prisons. However, her medications for bipolar disorder and the PTSD resulting from the repeated assaults were abruptly stopped in mid-August.

“Help Me Gain My Freedom”

Peterson’s first parole hearing won’t be until July 2021. But Peterson is not giving up hope that he’ll be home before then and is currently pursuing a pardon from Georgia governor Nathan Deal. The Republican governor is no stranger to signing criminal legal reform legislation. In 2015, Deal signed an executive order “banning the box” (removing questions about arrest and conviction histories from state employment applications). The following year, he extended ban-the-box protections to state occupational licensing, ended the lifetime ban on food stamps for drug convictions and allowed for the reinstatement of driver’s licenses to people who have non-vehicle-related drug convictions. He also vetoed a bill that would have allowed discrimination against LGBTQ people. These actions make Peterson and Shear hopeful that a gubernatorial pardon — or at least a commutation — is possible.

In an open message to supporters, Peterson wrote, “If you are thinking about writing me, PLEASE, write Governor Nathan Deal first…. I’m asking that anyone who thinks I should be out, write to the people who are in a position of power. Flood their mail boxes with letters. Sign my petition and make Governor Deal aware of the injustices that have happened and are still happening in his state. As much I love receiving mail from everyone, it would mean so much more if your time, resources, and stamps were used to help me gain my freedom.”

Note: The video embedded in this article — “Ky Peterson — Survived and Punished” — was created by Survived and Punished, a national network supporting people criminalized for self-defense, and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. It was conceived by Mariame Kaba with narrative by CeCe McDonald, and directed by Dean Spade and Hope Dector.

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