(WM) A transgender woman is seeking damages and accountability from Pinellas County after she was misgendered by Pinellas County officials and jailed with male inmates for 11 days late last year.
Karla Bello, a former health care worker now residing in Hillsborough County, was held in Pinellas County Jail Nov. 29-Dec. 10, 2019. A lawsuit filed Aug. 27 argues that Pinellas County, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and other officials violated her civil rights by discriminating against her because of her gender identity.
Gulfport Police arrested Bello for failing to appear before a Pinellas County judge Nov. 4, 2019 regarding a traffic citation. The court filing shows that her Pinellas County Jail admission assessment indicated she is transgender and that her housing report indicated she was to be housed “in male holding.”
According to the Pinellas County Jail Inmate Handbook, Sheriff Gualtieri – who is up for re-election Nov. 3 – writes that he is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the county’s facilities. Its introduction advises “no individual shall be discriminated against because of race, color, national origin, gender or disability.”
“Under the policies, non-transgender people are able to be assigned to jail housing according to their gender identity,” Bello’s lawsuit reads, “to access restrooms and other single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identity and to receive medical care with their gender identity.” It asserts that transgender people, as was the case with Bello’s incarceration, are prevented from doing so.
“They took everything from me,” Bello says. “They erased my identity. It wasn’t until I was actually out of jail that I started comprehending that – I was in shock. Even after I was out, I was in shock. I was so numb.”
Bello says her hair extensions and bra were confiscated, as were her colored pencils. Officials deemed the art supplies contraband, she explains, after she began utilizing them as makeup as her sole defense to combat misgendering.
Denied access to Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) as she lacked a valid prescription, which Bello had been utilizing for years to treat her gender dysphoria, she became suicidal. After being transferred to a psych ward, officials confiscated her gaff, a gender-affirming undergarment.
“That moment was very painful for me,” she recalls. “I don’t live that way and I wasn’t able to treat my gender dysphoria. They weren’t helping me in any way to treat it – they left me there for three days.
“I lost hope,” she continues. “I would have attempted suicide. If I wouldn’t have been rescued on the 11th hour of the 11th day I don’t think that I would still be here.”
That’s when Bello met Rook Ringer, her current lawyer and a managing attorney for Lento Law Group with a passion for civil rights. She heard about Bello’s imprisonment through a mutual friend and contacted Trans Mission Media, an advocacy group that helps individuals facing circumstances like Bello’s.
Ringer, a transgender woman herself, says she discovered Bello’s plight not long after joining her New Jersey-based law group. She currently practices out of St. Augustine and says cases like Bello’s were “the reason I went to law school. This is what I want to do.”
Trans Mission Media crowd-sourced Bello’s $513 bail and arranged for safe housing upon her release. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says tearfully. “The only thing I can say is that I’m grateful. I can never say thank you enough to Trans Mission Media … to people who donated to get me out of there. To Rook. I could say thank you every single day because I shouldn’t be here.”
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has declined to comment on the pending litigation, which Bello says is about holding officials accountable. The jail “is supposed to be a rehabilitation facility,” she says. “It’s not supposed to leave someone wanting to end their life. That’s what it did to me.”
Emotionally recovering from her experiences and having resumed HRT with a prescription, Bello stresses officials knew what they were doing.
“They just thought they could get away with it because no one would care,” she says. “This is the time to really speak out because I’m lucky I’m alive. It’s about dignity.”