LASO Badge

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who is stepping down after three years of overseeing L.A. County’s jails.

Cindy Chang
April 26, 2016

The enormousness of the task facing Terri McDonald was clear.

A veteran of the state prisons, she had been brought in to turn around a Los Angeles County jail system reeling from allegations of mismanagement and abuse.

Inmates were complaining of rampant brutality by guards. An FBI investigation into excessive force and corruption was underway. Outside experts were calling for extensive reforms.

Three years later, McDonald, 52, is stepping down, having presided over a period of seismic change in the county jails.

In a department where jailers were accused of adopting an “us versus them” attitude, McDonald brought a gentler approach, taking time to chat with inmates about their concerns. She sought to revamp a culture in which deputies viewed the jails as an unsavory assignment before moving to patrol.

In 2013, the year she arrived, there were 10 jail suicides. Last year there was one.

The most severe injuries caused by deputies — resulting in broken bones or worse — have decreased to a handful each year. Agreements McDonald helped negotiate with federal authorities and the ACLU now govern how mentally ill inmates are treated and when deputies can use physical force.

But hundreds of inmates still are injured in confrontations with deputies each year — although most incidents are minor — and the number has been climbing. And deputies are being assaulted with increasing frequency, with some complaining that the reforms have given inmates too much power.

Still, McDonald deserves credit for curtailing the worst abuses and making the jails a more humane place with her hands-on management, said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California and a frequent critic of the jails.

“I don’t think everything’s perfect,” Eliasberg said. “But there’s been a dramatic decrease in the brutal beatings that were quite commonplace prior to her arrival.”

In late 2012, a blue-ribbon citizens’ commission placed much of the blame for the endemic violence on the Sheriff’s Department’s top brass — and recommended that the jails be led by a corrections professional familiar with how facilities in the rest of the country are run.

Then-Sheriff Lee Baca responded by hiring McDonald as an assistant sheriff in charge of the jails. It was a major shift for an agency that always had cycled its jailers in and out of street patrol.

McDonald started her career as a California prison guard and worked her way through the ranks to become second in command at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She oversaw attempts to improve training for guards as well as reforms aimed at reducing the inmate population.

In her first days in Los Angeles, McDonald recalled in a recent interview, she found that staffers lacked basic equipment, such as shields for extracting inmates who didn’t want to leave their cells. The jails were so overcrowded that some inmates slept in common areas or were stacked three to a bunk.

To read expanded article, click here.