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Pinellas County, Florida Sheriff’s Office Sued in Federal Court for Treatment of Transgender Prisoner

When Bello was taken into custody, she advised the intake officer that she was presenting as a woman, but instead was placed in men’s housing, where she alleged that she suffered increased gender dysphoria. Bello was not able to keep her hair extensions, her bra, or her hormone medication, and felt uncomfortable in the presence of male prisoners, many of whom harassed her.

Bello complained to a Tampa-area radio station that, “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.”

By the time she had been in custody seven days, she began to experience feelings of despondency and hopelessness, and contemplated suicide: “I had decided, I can’t live with this, I’m going to die in here.”

Her luck changed when a transgender rights group hired attorney Rook Elizabeth Ringer of the Lento Law Group, who arranged for her to be bailed out of jail.

Her lawsuit against Pinellas County alleges discrimination based upon her gender identity, a violation of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, and denial of medical care, which constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” violative of the Eighth Amendment.

Attorney Ringer stated, “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. No county official would dare place a non-transgender person in a jail housing unit that conflicted with their gender identity,” he said. “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.”

The director of transgender equality for Equality Florida, Gina Duncan, said that it was “disappointing” that a person like Bello was mistreated, especially after carrying out training of many police agencies, including Pinellas County, on the issue.

“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.” See: Bello v. Pinellas County, et al., Case No. 8:20-cv-02005-TPB-AEP, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.). 


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Related legal case

Bello v. Pinellas County, et al.