I’ll Never Go Back

William Peterson 

Albany, Georgia (Senate District 15)

William Peterson doesn’t usually like to discuss his past. He’ll wave his hand as if to bat away any queries from staff at The Arc of Southwest Georgia. That’s where he spends almost every day in the adult day center doing the things he loves, like coloring with a set of colored pencils and markers that he totes around in a green zippered case. 

 (Story continues below after slideshow.) 

You can ask him questions about the time before, and he might go as far as saying, “I was a bad boy.” But usually, the 67-year-old man, who has an intellectual disability, prefers to leave it at that.

Today, though, he wants to tell his story. When he sits down to talk, his face darkens uncharacteristically and his affect—usually mild—changes. His voice goes hard, and he chokes up a number of times. But he wants to talk.

He attended school till the third grade, he says. After that, he says, he suffered an involuntary stint in Georgia’s Central State Hospital, a traumatizing experience that involved at least one round of electroshock therapy. Electroconvulsive therapy, as it’s known today, is now performed in controlled, voluntary settings, and has proven to be a highly effective treatment for people whose severe depression or bipolar hasn’t responded to other treatments. However, in the mid-twentieth century, staff at mental hospitals like Central State overused and abused the practice to control patient populations. These were places which too often served as dumping grounds for those deemed “undesirable” by the general population: those living with mental illness and disabilities of all stripes. 

At its peak in the mid-20th century, Central State Hospital, known colloquially across the state as “Milledgeville” for the Georgia town that abutted its sprawling 8,000 acres, was the largest mental hospital in the world, housing more than 12,000 patients.

First opened in the mid-1800s, Milledgeville’s patients outnumbered staff by 100 to one by the 1950s, and crowd control, rather than treatment, ruled the day. Mistreatment included “experimental drugs being given to patients without their or their family’s consent, a nurse performing major surgery without supervision, and staff and doctors being drunk while on duty.” (Georgia Encyclopedia.) Lobotomies, insulin shock, and confinement in straitjackets were not unheard of, nor was the confinement of children to metal cages. The mistreatment sparked two separate investigations by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and finally, in 2007, a lawsuit.  In 2010, the hospital stopped accepting new patients.

The infamous abuses at Central State and other mental hospitals in Georgia—echoed across the country—also gave rise in 1999 to the landmark Olmstead decision by the Supreme Court, which required hospitals to allow patients to live in community settings if they could receive effective treatment there. This was the establishment of the Medicaid waiver today. Around the same time, a push began to identify and mark 25,000 previously unmarked graves on the property’s acreage.

What would life have been like for  William had a decision like Olmstead taken place earlier?

Maybe he wouldn’t have ended up committing the acts that led to his later incarceration. According to research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2016, nearly two in five of those incarcerated in state and federal institutions lived with at least one disability—the most common being cognitive disability (23%). Furthermore, incarcerated people were about two and a halftimes more likely to report a disability than non-incarcerated adults. William says his time in prison included beatings at the hands of guards, and—seemingly worse for him—time spent in solitary confinement. Even as he covers his face with shaking hands, his words fly out in a torrent, as he talks about being “thrown in the hole, for I didn’t know how long.” He says he served two stints in prison: a six-month sentence and another, in which he served eight out often years. One can’t help but wonder how his earlier, traumatic experience of childhood poverty, followed by his subsequent experiences of terror and abuse in an overcrowded mental institution led him down the path of crime and recidivism. 

While those days are behind William Peterson now—at least three decades back—they also lie just inside him, harming him from the inside. When asked what his freedom means to him, he begins with an adamant “I’ll never go back there. Never go back.” 

Life on the outside has been gentler. The 67-year-old walks slowly through The Arc’s community room where a hug from a friend makes him burst into a huge smile. Outside, he’s reminded of the basketball he used to enjoy playing and beams with pride when he talks about his medals from the Special Olympics. As he walks by the grill the agency fires up for special events, he mentions he enjoys cookouts—and even drinking the occasional beer at home.

Williamloves living independently—and a Medicaid waiver allows him to do so, in hisown apartment, with the assistance of a case worker. William still measuresindependent life today against his institutionalized past lives. To him, itmeans “I could go to sleep when I want to and go to bed when I want to. Watch TV when I want to. I clean up the house. Eat ice cream!”

He also does occasional work unloading pallets for a grocery manufacturing plant and doing janitorial work with The Arc’s maintenance crew—and he wants to do more janitorial work to earn more money.

The Olmstead decision made a monumental difference in the lives of thousands of Americans like William Peterson. But here in Georgia, more change is still desperately needed. Institutions like Central State Hospital may be gone, but as you read this, more than 6,000 Georgians living with disabilities continue to languish in nursing homes—or have their care pieced together each day by over burdened family members. Many of them have been waiting for years for Medicaid waivers that would allow them to lead more independent lives. The community-based care that such waivers provide, like that which William receives, is also cheaper than nursing home care—costing only about a third as much. And it provides people with the sorts of ordinary freedom most of us take for granted. As William said: Going to bed when we want to. Eating ice cream.

Inthe weeks to come, William will be moving from an interim apartment funded bythe state into his own place—and he’s excited. Next weekend, he says he might go bowling—or not. Who knows. He’s a freeman.

Writer: Kate Sweeney , Photographer: Jessica Whitley 

Copyright © 2019 Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. All Rights Reserved.
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