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Terri McDonald: Jailer in chief

The Los Angeles County jail system is, in a way, two systems. There's the one Sheriff Lee Baca says he yearns for, a place where you do your time but also get help, a place enriched with educational and mental health programs. And there's the one under scrutiny by the FBI, a federal grand jury and others over allegations of brutality and mismanagement. Terri McDonald is now in charge of them both. After a quarter-century in the state prisons, from prison guard to manager of the massive "realignment" of prisoners, McDonald will be opening the investigatory and disciplinary books on the jail, with an eye to realigning it.

In your new job, do you have the authority not just to make recommendations but to carry them out?

I believe the sheriff has given me full authority to do that. These aren't easy problems, and fixes don't happen overnight. Many solutions require resources, and it's still a time of constrained resources. We just have to learn to be creative.

Aren't there changes you can make without money, by moving deputies around and changing the culture?

Just letting people know what your values are is very powerful. I spent my first week meeting with people, talking about the sheriff's vision and what they can expect from me. I expect constitutional jailing with a focus on security and rehabilitation as well as management. Simply by telling people what you expect, they'll follow. That's been my experience.

Have you given yourself some deadlines?

No, I'm going to spend the next 30 days learning. Every recommendation of the jail violence commission is on my desk. [I'm] getting the lay of the land, a feeling for how things go, and setting a plan for the next six months.

Is there a philosophy of incarceration that you embrace?

Three kinds of offenders come into the system. One group of offenders are just criminally entrenched. They tend to be rather sociopathic, predatory, violent, very difficult to manage and very dangerous. The second group has made a situational mistake. They're coming in to serve their time. They have abilities, and when they get out [they won't] return. The third group lands somewhere in between. If they can be reached, they're likely to be successful. If you don't provide those services, they're likely to go on to a lifetime of criminality.

How has realignment changed the system?

Post-realignment, parole violators are serving time locally. They're referred to in the state prison system as churners — they come in, they serve 45 days or so, then out they go. That's the same population sitting in county jails now. [Some] 60% of those have a substance abuse problem that hopefully you can address.

Just this past week, The Times wrote about a 2009 email from a sheriff's deputy to two black colleagues about the "Black Panther LASD."

It is currently under investigation. But I consider it inappropriate behavior.

Late last year, a couple of deputies exchanged pictures of beaten-up inmates. One message read, "Looks like we did a better job." How do you change these mindsets?

[The state] system had similar allegations. I was one of the folks who rolled out the new use-of-force training policy [there] and also developed and implemented a statewide policy eradicating the code of silence. [You have to] tell people what will not be tolerated.

L.A. County's already put together an excellent use-of-force policy, not just when and where you use force but how you track it and monitor it.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard executives and managers work, occasionally a stray employee is the wrong employee for any law enforcement agency.

Can you get rid of those people?

There's always rules and regulations about personnel and discipline. If we're finding noncompliance, it's our responsibility to deal with that.

What if use-of-force policies need changing?

We may learn that we're getting a lot of use of force in this [or that] area because of a policy — if we did it differently, we wouldn't have so many troubles.

There's going to be force necessary and utilized in the jail setting. It's the nature of the business. The question is, was the force consistent with the threat, and was it necessary? The force could be necessary and appropriate, but maybe there was a violation of policy in some other area where we need training.

Do you expect deputies to report problems they see?

When you make it clear what the expectations and the consequences are for not reporting misconduct, then employees start coming forward. People just need permission, [and to understand that] you've got to come forward when something inappropriate happens, because if you don't, your career is in jeopardy.

The jail has been under so much scrutiny; how have the deputies received you?

Deputies welcome me here. These are really good employees. You have one or two doing behavior that is unacceptable, and folks paint all employees that way, and that's simply not the case.

It's my goal to try to start changing public opinion about that.

Under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the word "rehabilitation" was restored to the state corrections name and mission.

Unfortunately, about two years after that, the recession hit. The rehabilitation program took a $250-million reduction, so while everybody wanted to provide rehabilitative programming, hundreds of [prison] teachers were laid off, hundreds of classrooms were closed. Post-realignment under Gov. Brown, about $100 million has been restored.

Is it harder to do rehabilitation in a jail?

Churning is one challenge, but it's also space. Prisons have more classrooms, more vocational settings than jails do. There are challenges of infrastructure — I saw crowding in some [jail] units where there are beds on day room floors not designed for housing offenders.

A Times editorial suggested solving use-of-force problems at the jail by making sure cameras are in place and not subject to being switched on and off.

Cameras are an excellent way to monitor what's going on in the jail. My experience — 95% of the time they prove that an allegation didn't happen as described. They're expensive to install, expensive to maintain, and we'll continue to work with the Board of Supervisors [for] funding.

And upgrading a computer system to track complaints against deputies?

That's in the jail violence report, so that's part of what the Sheriff's Department has been working on.

What about a separate career track for jail deputies and patrol deputies?

This is such a large county with such a large jail, I think the decision to go with professionalized custody makes sense.

It's important that [deputies] understand the art and science of corrections, and best practices. It's kind of hard to do when they are churning from custody to field patrol. I think people's ability to stay in and promote will only enhance the skills of the staff. Maybe adding some tenure to the staff will help enormously.

And rotating deputies, breaking up cliques, is that on your to-do list?

Rotation is part of the jail violence commission [report]. The other part of that issue is supervision. If you don't have enough supervisors, unnecessary influences can step in.

When you were in Sacramento, what did you think of reports of abuse and neglect here?

I've been through where L.A. County's been. The California Department of Corrections had the same public perception. It hurt me that that was happening, and it's one of the primary reasons I wanted to come here.

Second, it's one of the most progressive jail systems. It's not the goal just to put [inmates] in cells and then kick them out on their release date. They're trying to make a difference while they're in custody.

What makes prison work satisfying?

You're working with people who are extremely complex, who haven't perhaps had opportunities, who present really difficult challenges. Your mind is working every day on how to deal with it. Almost my entire tenure [with the state], the prison system was under the crush of massive overcrowding. Figuring out how to manage that was incredibly rewarding. It made it exciting to go to work every day.

Do you have a favorite prison movie?

I have two, "The Green Mile" and "American Me." What I like about "The Green Mile," although it's pure fantasy, is the Tom Hanks character, who's compassionate, concerned about inmates, who's a problem solver — the vast majority of correctional experts are like that. "American Me," on the other hand, shows the complexity of gang influence in prisons and jails. [That] cannot be overstated, and how difficult it is to combat. That's very accurate.

Patt.morrison@latimes.com.

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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