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Transgender Woman Sues Pinellas County Sheriff's Office For Mistreatment In Jail

Karla Bello, 37, spent 11 days in the Pinellas County Jail late last year, where she said she was misgendered and denied access to her hormone treatment.
Karla Bello, 37, spent 11 days in the Pinellas County jail last year, where she said officers misgendered her and denied her access to her hormone treatment.

She spent 11 days in the county jail after missing a court date to address unpaid traffic tickets.

A transgender woman is suing Pinellas County and more than a dozen members of the sheriff's office over mistreatment she says she suffered in jail. The case highlights challenges the transgender community face in the criminal justice system.

Karla Bello, 37, said the 11 days she spent in the Pinellas County Jail last year were a fight for her life.

The home health worker was incarcerated in late November after she missed a court date to address unpaid traffic tickets. Bello was struggling financially at the time and couldn’t pay them, nor could she afford the $513 bail set for her release.

She told jail workers she is a woman, but they placed her in men’s housing and called her by the deadname, or name given at birth, that was still listed on her identification records.

“They stripped me of my identity. Even though the whole world knows me as Karla, calls me 'miss,' they wanted to label me male, and they called me ‘sir,’ and it was very painful to have to endure that,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

Bello lost access to her hair extensions, bra, and hormone medication – things she said were critical to treating her gender dysphoria. Officers said she couldn't have her meds because, like many transgender people without proper access to health care, she didn't have a prescription.

Bello felt uncomfortable changing clothes around male inmates, some of whom, she said, made inappropriate comments. She tried to get creative to preserve her dignity, using colored pencils as eye makeup. But because no inmates are allowed to wear makeup, officers told her she had to stop.

Withdrawing from treatment was causing Bello to experience chest pains and other physical distress. And she was emotionally unraveling. She repeatedly voiced these concerns to staff, and jail records show they looked into it, but they said they found no medical issues.

"It landed me in the psych ward, like I started getting depressed, I was getting suicidal,” said Bello. “I had decided, I can't live with this, I'm going to die in here."

A transgender rights group heard about Bello’s situation and bailed her out with help from attorney Rook Elizabeth Ringer, who works at Lento Law Group. She’s representing Bello in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

The suit names Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and 15 officers and jail staff. It accuses them of violating Bello’s equal protection rights by discriminating against her gender identity, and of subjecting her to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Pinellas County’s treatment of Ms. Bello is not only shocking, and as we believe, unlawful, but it shows the continuing prejudice transgender people face in Florida and across the United States,” said​ Ringer. “No county official would dare place a non-transgender person in a jail housing unit that conflicted with their gender identity. And yet, that is exactly what Pinellas County sheriff’s officers and prison officials did with Ms. Bello for apparently no other reason than that she is a transgender person.”

A spokesperson for Gualtieri said he would not comment on the litigation. But the sheriff has acknowledged in the past that his jail staff mistreated Bello by misgendering her and said his office encourages deputies to respect a person’s pronouns.

In a story about Bello published by the Tampa Bay Times in March, Gualtieri defended the decision to house Bello with men. He said trans inmates are typically assigned according to their genitalia unless they opt for protective custody, which is essentially solitary confinement.

A widespread issue

Bello’s experience is not uncommon in the transgender community.

Nearly one in six transgender people have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. They’re also much more likely than cisgender people to suffer abuse while behind bars. The situation is worse for trans women of color, like Bello, and their protections are limited.

In 2018, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era policies that made it easier for trans inmates to be housed according to their identity as well as access hormone treatment.

Gina Duncan, Director of Transgender Equality with the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, said while federal policy doesn't mandate what happens at the local level, it has an influence.

"And we've seen different parts of Florida have moved at different paces in reference to embracing policy and protocol to better serve the transgender and non-binary community,” she said.

Duncan's organization trains police how to better understand and respect the trans community, and has worked with Pinellas County in recent years. She said it's disappointing to hear mistreatment continues to occur, but said police reform is an ongoing process.

"We just have to keep at it, and we have to call it out when it happens, and we have to denounce it when it happens, and then we need to keep training,” she said. “And in the most forceful ways, push these agencies to truly make this a part of their corporate culture."

Besides damages, Bello’s lawsuit seeks to require the county implement policies that protect future transgender inmates and allow them to serve their time as their true selves.

"I want justice, for me, but at the same time it has to be a big deal, because some other transgender woman might not be so lucky when it happens to her,” she said.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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