Larra Ann Gillis was a 47 year old mother. On December 4th, 2015 she was booked into the Monterey County Jail. Shortly thereafter she died. Larra was in the jail for just over 24 hours.
The story begins when Larra was arrested by Cal State Monterey Bay campus police. Her charges were relatively minor; being of under the influence of drugs, obstructing police and possession of marijuana.
Police took her to the Monterey County Jail where she reportedly pleaded for help. She was allegedly shouting for assistance and telling officers she didn’t want to die. As we have long said in this blog, jails do a horrible job of helping people detox. Simply quitting “cold turkey” with no medication is often fatal. It certainly was that day.
Once booked at the jail, Larra was placed in a restraint chair and placed alone in a cell. No toilet, no sink and strapped to a chair. She was apparently given a single cup of water.
When a nurse checked on her the next day, Larra was unresponsive and covered in her own feces. Even then, it took almost an hour to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital.
By then, it was too late. Although Larra would remain alive for a few days she never regained consciousness. He cause of death was listed as organ failure. Simple antibiotics might have saved her life but for 24 hours she received no medical assistance. In that time her kidneys and lungs failed.
Larra Ann Gillis was one of five inmates to die in the Monterey County Jail that year.
In 2016, her sons filed suit in federal court. Named as defendants were Monterey County, Sheriff Steve Bernal, the California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) and several officers.
Why CFMG? Like many jails, the sheriff wanted to cut costs. In Monterey County that meant outsourcing the jail’s healthcare to a private, for profit company. In our experience, the company that gets the contract is usually the cheapest bidder. Cheapest is often not the best or even adequate.
Her sons say that her mother was detoxing and clearly needed medical attention, yet it took 28 hours before she saw a nurse.
California Forensic Medical Group – CFMG
CFMG provides inmate healthcare to 65 jails and prisons in California. At the time of Larra’s death, they had been working with Monterey County for several years. In 2007 and 2011, the county and CFMG were the subject of an outside audit performed by a consultant hired by the County Board of Supervisors. The audit found the jail didn’t have adequate facilities to treat inmates needing care.
In 2013, the county was the subject of a class action lawsuit. Lawyers for the prisoners put Monterey County on notice that staff were “employing a dangerous and punitive ‘detox protocol,’ refusing medications to inmates who then suffered from intense, untreated pain as well as powerful, dangerous and unnecessary withdrawal symptoms.”
Things were so bad that the lawyers representing the inmates wrote to both the judge and the Board of Supervisors. One of the concerns was the long delay in receiving medical treatment, “Prisoners have difficulty requesting assistance through the sick call procedure and often experience substantial delays before being seen by an appropriate medical provider… As a result, medical issues often go untreated for weeks or months.”
Just a few months before Larra’s death, the judge overseeing the class action found:
“Defendants use custody staff to perform intake screenings to identify those who might be at risk for withdrawal symptoms when they are first booked into the jail. While the jail's screening procedures do not specify who should decide if a newly admitted inmate should be placed in a sobering or detoxification cell, in practice custody officers also routinely make this decision. Medical staff is not responsible for initial evaluations and placement of persons into sobering or detoxification cells . . . [I]t is a "major problem" that correctional officers conduct intake screenings. Officers are not trained to identify persons at risk for withdrawal, to evaluate persons who appear to be intoxicated, or to make medical decisions with respect to isolation for this purpose. This should be done by medical professionals [,] not custody officers.
“The jail does not reliably monitor inmates as they detoxify. Though Defendants' policy requires that nurses consult with a physician if a patient displays anyone of eight abnormal signs . . . this does not happen. Though [a neutral expert] was told that physicians are supposed to see all
withdrawing patients within 24 hours, [the expert] found this also did not happen. [The expert] concluded, "alcohol and other drug withdrawal syndromes are managed by officers and nurses without physician supervision.”
CFMG's own policies provide that a nurse does not conduct an assessment until after custody staff has placed the inmate in the sobering cell and notified medical staff.”
The last finding probably explains why it took 28 hours for a nurse to see Larra. Obviously, that was too late.
The county and CFMG had no excuse for such a delay. The same judge that made the findings of poor care had previously ordered the jail’s medical staff to:
- “Medical staff shall timely conduct the initial evaluation to determine if an inmate is intoxicated and/or suffering from withdrawal or at high risk for withdrawal;
- Medical staff shall make the decision on who should be placed in a sobering cell and who should be transferred to the hospital to be treated for possible or actual withdrawal;
- Medical providers (physicians, physicians assistants, and/or nurse practitioners) shall be timely involved in assessing and treating inmates potentially undergoing withdrawal, and non-provider medical staff shall timely refer to providers those inmates undergoing withdrawals when clinically indicated;
- Detoxifying inmates shall be adequately monitored using the CIWA protocol or equivalent validated monitoring protocol, shall receive pharmacological treatment as indicated and be appropriately housed based on their clinical conditions…”
According to Larra’s family, she had been struggling with addiction for years. She had been arrested several times for petty offenses and booked into the Monterey County Jail. That is a significant fact because the jail’s intake notes should have reflected her substance abuse problem.
Under the court ordered protocol, a member of the medical staff should have evaluated Larra to determine if she was going through withdrawals and needed medical aid. Instead a deputy decided to restrain her to a chair and place her alone in a cell. Larra’s last moments of conscious lifer were spent alone, strapped to a chair and laying in her own feces. It was certainly a horrible – and unnecessary death.
Monterey County and CFMG Don’t Want to Pay
Despite not following clear mandates regarding care for inmates suffering from drug and alcohol withdrawals, both Monterey County and the California Forensic Medical Group denied any wrongdoing!
CFMG denied any obligation to pay Larra’s family for her death and suffering and said their treatment of her was “objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, and their conduct did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
In a slap in the face to the family, CFMG also blamed Larra for her own death.
Monterey County was worse, not only did they deny liability, the said the lawsuit was frivolous and that Larra’s kids should be forced to pay the county’s attorney’s fees.
Despite the chest beating and denials of liability, both Monterey County and the California Forensic Medical Group quietly agreed in September 2018 to pay $825,000.00. They split the cost of the settlement. A spokesperson for the county claimed they would have won at trial but decided to settle to avoid the uncertainties of trial.
We respectfully disagree. Ultimately it is up to clients as to whether they wish to accept a settlement or have their day in court. We are glad that Larra’s family saw some justice. We think jurors would have sided with the family. Hopefully CFMG and the county learned from this tragedy.
Did You or a Loved One Suffer a Catastrophic Injury or Death in a Jail or Prison?
Our jail death and injury lawyers represent inmates suffering catastrophic injuries as well as the families of inmates who suffer a wrongful death at the hands of police officers, prison staff or jail medical workers.
Inmates and pretrial detainees have the right not to be abused, beaten or worse. If you or a loved one has suffered mistreatment in jail or prison, you have legal options and may be entitled to compensation. CALL US at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn how we can help you file a federal civil rights lawsuit.*
We also invite you to visit our inmate abuse information page for more details.
*Our practice is limited to serious injuries, wrongful imprisonment and death cases. We get several inquiries each day and regret that we cannot speak with anyone who isn’t seriously injured.