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Transgender woman sues Pinellas sheriff over treatment in jail

“Hopefully these kinds of lawsuits will force other law enforcement agencies to treat people with dignity,” Karla Bello’s attorney said.
Karla Bello poses for a portrait outside the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center after attending a court hearing for her case on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 in Clearwater.
Karla Bello poses for a portrait outside the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center after attending a court hearing for her case on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 2, 2020

A transgender woman who said she was misgendered and mistreated over 11 days in the Pinellas County jail last year is suing Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his agency.

Karla Bello, 38, was placed in male housing, searched by male deputies, referred to by “sir” and with male pronouns, and denied treatment for her gender dysphoria — including hormones, according to the lawsuit filed Aug. 27 in federal court. Gender dysphoria is a medical condition that can occur when one’s sex assigned at birth doesn’t align with their gender identity.

The conditions drove Bello close to suicide, the suit says. It asserts that the jail and its employees disregarded Bello’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection and Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

“There was no reason to treat her like that,” said Bello’s attorney, Rook Elizabeth Ringer, who is also transgender. “Hopefully these kinds of lawsuits will force other law enforcement agencies to treat people with dignity.”

Related: Misgendered and mistreated in jail: A Pinellas transgender woman shares her story

The suit was filed against Gualtieri, Pinellas County, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and several jail employees. The sheriff declined to comment on the suit because it’s still pending.

When the Tampa Bay Times previously reported Bello’s story in March, the sheriff acknowledged that his agency mistreated Bello, particularly in misgendering her. He told a Times reporter he would look into formalizing a policy to use an inmate’s preferred pronouns.

When asked about that this week, Gualtieri said he didn’t recall carrying out that review because of the coronavirus crisis that broke out around the time the Times story published. He declined to comment further.

Bello, who works as a home health aide, was arrested in November during a low point in her life, she said previously in an interview. Her arrest stemmed from two unpaid traffic tickets, after cameras recorded her running lights in 2018.

Karla Bello applies lipstick before taking a walk.
Karla Bello applies lipstick before taking a walk. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Related: ‘This ends now’: Florida prison system ordered to accommodate transgender inmate

The state suspended her license. She was pulled over in October for a broken tail light, and police gave her a ticket for driving with a suspended license. She was supposed to appear in court Nov. 4.

When she didn’t show up, a warrant was put out for her arrest. In late November, Gulfport police arrested her. She was booked into jail Nov. 19 in lieu of $513 bail.

The lawsuit notes that “transgender people have suffered a long history of extreme discrimination in Florida and across the country and continue to suffer such discrimination to this day.” That’s particularly true behind bars, where many jails and prisons determine housing and searches based on one’s genitals or sex assigned at birth, experts say.

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Lawsuits similar to Bello’s have popped up across the country and resulted in changes that include determining housing based on gender identity, access to medical care for gender dysphoria and to gender-affirming grooming items, and more training for corrections officers.

“There should be a different way of doing things,” Bello previously told the Times. Jails “are not supposed to leave you feeling crippled, wanting to take your life.”

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