‘The Cool Thing About Pro Bono Work’

Iana Vladimirova took a transgender prisoner’s case hoping to enact change

Published in 2022 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Taylor Kuether on November 11, 2022


Like many lawyers, Iana Vladimirova entered law school hoping to make the world a better place. “But, oftentimes, we end up in practice areas where we can’t,” she says.

“Pro bono work gives you the ability to help underserved populations fight for the rights you believe in and also work in an area of the law that is underdeveloped.”

That’s what attracted Vladimirova to represent Nicole Rose Campbell in Campbell v. Kallas.

“I was drawn to this case because it dealt not only with prisoners’ rights, but with transgender rights,” she says. “The whole state of the law on transgender rights is in limbo across the country, and I saw it as a great opportunity to make a difference.” 

Campbell suffers from severe unremitting anatomic gender dysphoria, Vladimirova says. She was designated male at birth, but identifies as female. Campbell entered prison in 2007 and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ medical staff treated her with hormone therapy for several years, but it was not sufficient to treat her condition. 

“In 2013, Ms. Campbell repeatedly started asking for sex reassignment surgery, which the Department of Corrections repeatedly denied her,” Vladimirova says. “The Department of Corrections had a policy where, if you want gender reassignment surgery, you have to go for the one-year ‘real life’ experience. This is a term of art because, outside the prison system, it used to be a requirement and it no longer is.”

The idea is that the person requesting sex reassignment surgery would live as though they had undergone the surgery for a year prior to it taking place. “You go pick up your kids dressed as a female, in Ms. Campbell’s case, or introduce yourself at work as female—just to see how you deal with that,” Vladimirova says. “What the Department of Corrections was basically saying is Ms. Campbell can never have that experience, because she can never go into a female prison to see how she would feel there. On that basis, they kept denying her the sex reassignment surgery. It was a Catch-22.”

Working on a case with little precedent was uniquely challenging, Vladimirova says, but it had its own opportunities.

“You’re basically pounding the table and trying to convince the court to do something without having the legal support for it,” she says. “When it’s a developed area of the law, you’re limited by precedent. You’re kind of locked in. When it’s an underdeveloped area of the law, you can use cases from other circuits and all across the country.”

Another challenge is finding experts and, in pro bono cases, finding ones who will testify for free.

“While you can find a lot of doctors who practice transgender medicine, they’re not necessarily interested in doing this work for free. It took a long time to find two experts to testify in our case about the need for Ms. Campbell to have surgery,” Vladimirova says. “We needed to prove that she really needed the surgery and, without it, her rights were being violated.”

Campbell’s case went to trial in March 2020. The court found that department officials violated her Eighth Amendment rights to necessary medical care, and that the prison’s medical staff was deliberately indifferent to Campbell’s medical condition.

“The Eighth Amendment deals with the right to get medical treatment in prison,” Vladimirova says. “It stems from the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, when someone goes to prison, they are already being given a punishment, so if we refuse to provide you medical treatment, this is basically making the punishment worse than what the court has ordered you to serve.”

Because the court determined the DOC violated Campbell’s rights, she was evaluated again and scheduled to have the surgery in 2022.

“But it’s not only her; this changed the law in Wisconsin,” says Vladimirova. “That’s the cool thing about pro bono work: It’s not only about Ms. Campbell, which is great that she’s getting the surgery, but now there is this right for all prisoners in Wisconsin who suffer from severe gender dysphoria to take advantage of this. There are very few states that have that.”

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