Marlene Peterson, the mother of black Georgia trans male inmate Ky Peterson, worries every day that someone is trying to kill her son in prison. She's alarmed by news that he allegedly — and, to his mother, very unexpectedly — attempted suicide on June 3.
If you ask her, the claim that Ky Peterson tried to kill himself with an overdose of medication is only part of the story. Marlene Peterson, 42, doesn't have any evidence to support her nagging anxiety, but with prison officials refusing to answer questions from her or The Advocate, she's left fearing the worst.
"I feel that because of all this stuff going on with the media, you know, people are trying to get my daughter," said Marlene Peterson, who often uses female pronouns for her child, during a phone interview with The Advocate from her home in Americus, Ga. "People are trying to harm her. Keep her mouth closed, keep it hush-hush."
Ky Peterson, 23, was at the center of The Advocate's April investigative report "This Black Trans Man Is in Prison for Killing His Rapist" and has since December been blogging through his partner, Pinky Shear, about his experiences as a trans male inmate in Pulaski State Prison, a women's facility. He's serving 20 years (with 15 in confinement) for the October 2011 involuntary manslaughter of his rapist, who Ky Peterson told The Advocate he shot in self-defense.
Prison employees declined to confirm to The Advocate whether Peterson attempted suicide, but did note that he's been relocated to Arrendale State Prison, a women's medium-security prison in Alto, Ga., to serve time in "isolation" — also known as "lockdown" — before being transferred back to his assigned facility, Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, Ga.
In May, Ky Peterson began asking prison officials for access to hormone therapy, according to Shear. And Shear said that the last time she and Peterson spoke, two days before his alleged suicide attempt, she remembers him as cheerful, feeling hopeful about gaining access to medical care needed for his transition, despite being held in an isolated lockdown unit.
Several days later, Shear told The Advocate that she received an unexpected "private message" from a concerned Pulaski staff member who, against prison policy, told her of Peterson being rushed to the hospital. The anonymous source told her Ky Peterson had allegedly collected a lethal dose of medication from other prisoners and swallowed it.
Shear then shared the news with Marlene Peterson. The frustrated mother now recounts with The Advocate the subsequent "runaround" she says she got from Pulaski officials when desperately trying to obtain information, which has left her suspicious about the staff's motivations for avoiding her.
Marlene Peterson said her next few stops were at morgues. She asked if her child's body was being held, but nobody had heard of Ky Peterson. That's when she says she decided to visit Pulaski to get some answers — but none were forthcoming. Prison officials would only confirm that her son was alive and "OK."
Peterson says she returned to Pulaski twice more and called several more times over the next three days before a counselor would give her any additional information.
"They were telling me that her heart stopped. They had to revive her," Peterson recalls. "And I told him, 'How could she have taken an overdose of meds?' I mean, you're on lockdown. There's no way you gonna get a whole bunch of pills or liquid or whatever and take them because they watch you take your meds; they crush it up and give it to you in a cup of water. So ain't no way she could have took an overdose."
Peterson says she demanded to know why she was not called when her child had to be rushed to a hospital to be revived, but officials wouldn't explain why.
When The Advocate spoke to Georgia Department of Corrections director of public affairs Gwendolyn Hogan, she said, "[Ky] Peterson's condition was not deemed as a critical state where the next of kin needed to be notified. ... Per DOC policy, if and when an urgent medical situation occurs with any offender, the department will contact the next of kin when they are informed by doctors that an inmate's condition is critical and they are not expected to live. In those cases, we make contact with the family and make arrangement for them to visit."
Ky Peterson can't be reached for comment about his ordeal until out of lockdown and returned to Pulaski next week, possibly as early as Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Marlene Peterson remains concerned that if her son returns to Pulaski, someone may harm or even kill him, emphasizing that she has never heard her son express suicidal ideation.
"From the time she got locked up [in October 2011] ... she had said she was feeling depressed," Peterson told The Advocate. "I talked to her then and she said, 'Mama,' she said, 'I'm OK up here, I'm just depressed. I'm just feeling sad.' ... But she never said that she felt suicidal. I asked all of them — I ask my kids that. She said, 'I don't feel like hurting myself. If I could do anything, I'd help somebody. But I would never harm myself.'"
Peterson added, however, that she knows her son has been particularly upset by "hostile" treatment he's received from fellow inmates, or even from staff members at the prison. She says he's been troubled by receiving numerous disciplinary reports from guards, as well as repeatedly being placed in "lockdown" — a form of "isolation" that an Arrendale staff member described to The Advocate as "like" solitary confinement but not quite, with an inmate "separate from the rest of the compound," yet not in what is often described as "the hole." The Advocate reported in April that Peterson had, for instance, been sent to lockdown after a disagreement with a cellmate.
Shear highlights one particularly troubling disciplinary incident that occurred May 26, in the days leading up to Peterson's alleged suicide attempt. Peterson described the event in his journal, a copy of which he sent to Shear. In a journal transcript she provided to The Advocate, Peterson describes being accused by Pulaski staff of "insubordination" for sitting down on his bed during a two-hour inspection, after he experienced nausea and dizziness due to a new medication. When Peterson explained himself and did not stand up, he says he was pushed to the ground and handcuffed by four Community Emergency Response Team members. Ky Peterson alleges that one of the team pepper-sprayed him twice in the eyes, even though he was too weak from illness to struggle. He was then allegedly taken to lockdown.
Marlene Peterson expresses regret that she's unable to visit her son more often. The two have walked a road of acceptance together ever since Ky Peterson first told his mother at age 13, "I know I was born female, but I'm really a man."
He had started going by "Kyle" or "Ky" by age 11 and soon afterward switched to "boyish" clothes, his mother says. At first she found her son's trans identity difficult to understand, she says, but "I had to just go ahead and accept it because that's my child regardless."
"Whether she want to have whatever done to become a man, that's on her," Peterson explains. "I just have to accept it and move on. Love her for who she is and just let it go. I accept it. I accept her for being Kyle or Ky or whoever she want to be. Her sisters and brothers feel the same way."
Despite her concern that media attention somehow makes her son a target, Marlene Peterson says the situation won't change unless she speaks out. "I need help because I can't do this by myself," she said, explaining that she has "serious health problems" that hinder her ability to be active. "I'm trying. I'm making the calls. I'm doing as much as I can. ... I don't know what else to do."