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.
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.
“You can’t crowd the conditions and understaff the conditions and expect not to get bad outcomes,” McDonald said.
McDonald set new rules and enforced them, while also paying attention to less obvious details.
She matched deputies with partners so they no longer had to face 100 mentally ill inmates alone. She brought in cleaning crews to reduce unpleasant smells that made coming to work an ordeal. Even changing the color of the paint from dark green to light blue went some way to “softening the environment,” she said.
Bunk beds that inmates had hurled at each other during riots were bolted to the ground.
McDonald encouraged deputies to talk to inmates and to take pride in working the jails, which had been considered a second-class assignment.
“It’s not punching inmates, not engaging in hand-to-hand combat with inmates,” McDonald said. “When somebody strikes an inmate, it’s because the inmate encroached on them and they have no choice.”
Supporters credit McDonald with turning the jails around through a combination of empathy and toughness.
“Terri has been tremendous in her ability to reform a system under very difficult circumstances, to identify the ‘A’ players and to be able to manage, mentor and encourage those that needed the help,” said current Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was a member of the blue-ribbon jail violence commission when he was police chief in Long Beach.
Miriam Krinsky, who served as the jail commission’s executive director and then as a top aide to McDonnell, recalled her first visit to Men’s Central Jail in 2011. “You could almost feel the current of tenseness in the air. It felt like a place on the verge of being set off,” the former federal prosecutor said. “That is not the way the jail [feels] today.”
But the changes have not been well-received by some deputies, who say restrictions on the use of force have made the jails a more dangerous place. McDonald’s talk-first approach is inefficient and lets inmates get away with bad behavior, some say.
“If it means we talk for six or seven hours to an inmate, and he gets exactly what he wants — he gets to stay in his cell, and there’s no discipline — that’s not solving the problem,” said George Hofstetter, president of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
Tim White, secretary of the association, said tactics that work in state prisons, such as reasoning with inmates, may not work as effectively in jails, where inmates are generally serving shorter sentences.
“She knows custody,” White said of McDonald. “But I think it was a mistake to try to bring in state issues to a county problem.”
As McDonald worked to put the jails on the right path, the sprawling system remained under a microscope.
Statistics underscore the problems that still exist in the jails.
The number of cases in which deputies injured an inmate was down from a high of 763 in 2009 to 216 five years later. Only one of the 2014 cases involved head strikes or bone fractures. The most serious injuries typically occurred as staffers tried to break up inmate riots, McDonald said.
But in 2015, with figures reported through the end of November, the number of inmate injuries was up to 302. The least serious uses of force — those not resulting in injury — have nearly doubled, with McDonald attributing the increase in part to better reporting by deputies.
Assaults by inmates on jail staff also were up significantly, from 190 in 2013 to 380 in 2015.
Staffing shortages continue to be a major issue, with the court settlements mandating labor-intensive reforms such as more frequent checks on mentally ill inmates and better processing of grievances.
Though the overall number of L.A. County jail inmates is down to about 17,400 from nearly 19,000 after Proposition 47 lowered the penalties for some minor drug and property crimes, there has been an increase in mentally ill inmates: from 2,500 in 2011 to nearly 4,000 in 2015.
Recently, the prolonged handcuffing of inmates has emerged as a concern.
Last summer, an inmate was handcuffed to a chair without food for 32 hours. After a series of cases in which inmates suspected of having contraband were chained to a wall for hours, McDonald’s staff issued a policy forbidding the practice. In one case, prosecutors charged a deputy and two sergeants with inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on an inmate who was handcuffed to a wall.
McDonald acknowledges that much remains to be done, including completing the court-supervised reforms on use of force and providing more educational offerings for inmates. It will be up to her successor, Kelly Harrington, who also has decades of experience in the state prisons, to “take it to the next level,” she said.
The increase in assaults on jail employees is “troubling,” McDonald said. The causes are complex and include a changing inmate population as well as improved record keeping and the knowledge among some inmates that jail staff will not respond to violence with violence, she said.
In response, sheriff’s officials have increased staffing and enforced punishments for inmates who assault employees.
The transformation of the Los Angeles County jails, McDonald said, is “the most substantial reform going on” in any jail or prison system in the country.
When she first arrived, she asked a roomful of jail deputies if anyone preferred the jails over street patrol. Those who did were afraid to admit it, she said — not a single hand went up.
Recently, she took the same poll again.
“A third raised their hands, saying they valued the career and were excited about coming to work,” McDonald said. “Despite the peer pressure, they weren’t afraid to raise their hands and say, ‘I want to stay.’”