Terri McDonald is the new head of the troubled L.A. County jail system. (Christina House / For the…)
Her father was a fireman, her mother was a teacher, and her brother was a sheriff’s deputy.
It’s hardly a surprise that Terri McDonald would follow the family and wind up working in California government, in her case moving up the ranks through the prison system and now as the "assistant sheriff for custody," the woman brought in to clean out the Augean stables of the L.A. County jail system.
Out of high school, earning her way through college, a friend told her about “a pretty good job that pays a little better than Burger King,” and she she began working in a mental health facility. She learned quickly “how to work in environments where people were held against their will” in conservatorship care.
Eight years later, her brother – a deputy sheriff in San Joaquin County – pointed out that the state prison system had a job classification called “correctional counselor” and urged her to try it.
(Formally, it’s not the state prison system. It’s the “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” And I’ve heard now and then from prison guards who don’t like the term prison guards. Their official union name is a mouthful, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.) McDonald moved into that job, and others in the system, and she was undersecretary in the department when L.A. County sent her the big invite.
When I interviewed her, I found her manner of speaking and phraseology not to be the rough, early 20th century jargon of punishment, but the 21st century public-policy language of “corrections and rehabilitation,” careful and a little stiff, the way that the officer who gives you a traffic ticket calls you “sir” or “ma’am” and doesn’t seem to use contractions.
With federal and local scrutiny of the jails and allegations of brutality and neglect, McDonald’s task of cleaning up, opening up and reforming will be not unlike trying to change a tire on a moving car. The inmates are one aspect, the conduct of their jailers another.
“We expect law enforcement to act above and beyond any other citizen," McDonald said. "We expect them to be the most just, the most humane, and when that doesn’t occur, it legitimately causes outrage, and it causes outrage by me as well. I don’t want to minimize allegations of inappropriate or potentially criminal behavior by any employee in any agency. Having said that, there are a lot of [deputies] who are ethical, hardworking, brave and creative that I’m looking forward to working with and leading and helping them move the organization toward a better understanding of correctional science.”
Sheriff’s cliques have plagued the department for decades, notably nearly a quarter-century ago when a clique called the Lynwood Vikings sometimes bullied their fellow deputies. I asked McDonald how she might break up these cliques. “Rotation is [a recommendation] of the jail violence commission," she said. "The other part is supervision. If you don’t have enough supervisors watching staff, it creates a vacuum where unnecessary influences can step in, so increased supervision, as well as giving people the opportunity to work in different [work] environments, learn new parts of the business with different partners, is all in the component.”
The way I translate that is: We need to watch problem deputies more, move them around and break up their cliques.
Jail and prison inmates are used to being watched. McDonald will now have myriad sets of eyes on her: public officials, deputies, civil rights lawyers and the public. I don’t get the sense that she’s going to blink.
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