Twin Towers jail, near downtown Los Angeles.
Terri McDonald has one of the toughest jobs in town. She is the new assistant sheriff hired to clean up L.A. County’s jails. And she is tasked with doing this in the midst of public pressure and a federal investigation into violence in the jails.
McDonald has spent her first couple of months getting acquainted with the jails – and what she’ll have to do to fix them.
Which means visiting the county’s facilities – sometimes unexpectedly – to get a handle on what needs doing.
On a recent tour of Twin Towers, McDonald said she looks for a number of different things when she's walking around a jail.
"I'm looking at inmates, talking to inmates," McDonald said. If they’re willing to talk to her, that’s a good sign that the inmates have a level of trust in the sheriff’s department. She’s also looking to see how deputies respond to surprise visits from a supervisor.
“The deputies, their demeanor, their respectability,” McDonald said. “And so far, I’ve been very impressed overall. But evaluating a culture’s not easy.”
Twin Towers is one of the most complicated jails in the country. It’s the entrance point for all men coming into the system.
Security cameras line the ceilings. One would expect plenty of cameras in a jail. But they’re a controversial addition amongst some deputies.
“They’re understandably concerned when you have a change of policy," McDonald said. "They think that the cameras are there to get them. But the reality is, they’re protection for them.”
In many cases, they’ve been used to exonerate deputies accused of misconduct. Cameras are currently in three jails. McDonald’s goal is to get them inside all facilities. And there are improvements to make to the current cameras, too.
"There are some areas here that we’re looking at because we have some blind spots we want to fix," McDonald said.
We arrive at the reception center. It’s a maze of tiled rooms, benches, and metal toilets. About 140,000 men each year find themselves here. At the moment, deputies are searching those who just arrived.
“They have to give up their property when they come in," McDonald said. "They’re given jail clothing. And we begin the whole process of who’s in here.”
That means figuring out an inmate’s security level. How long they’re likely to be in jail. What medical problems they might have. During certain times of day, this area is packed with inmates. McDonald says they can be hard to keep track of.
"One of the things we don’t want is inmates languishing in this area," McDonald said, which is why the county has built a tracking system. "From my desktop, I can look and see if there are people who’ve been waiting too long."
The deputies who work down here in intake are usually a bit more experienced because it can be a volatile place. Inmates, McDonald said, have a number of particularly stressful points during their stay in jail: intake day, sentencing day (for those who are convicted or plead guilty), and for some, the day family members decide to cut off contact.
Inmates in serious crisis – depression, manic or suicidal – are sent to the seventh floor of Twin Towers. That’s where they house the acutely mentally ill.
The men here are mostly in single cells, spread in pods around a central observation booth. Some cell walls are covered in writing. Others are strewn with empty milk cartons and plastic wrappers.
McDonald points to cell number 10.
"If you look in you can see an offender who is having trouble with his activities and daily living," McDonald said.
The man is sitting on his bunk, staring at the floor. It is littered with the remnants of meals. He doesn’t look up when we peer in.
“Trying to get them to clean their cell out is an indication of mental health needs," McDonald said.
A number of inmates recognize McDonald and want to talk. One waves her over to his cell door.
“I need help here because I’m not getting proper assistance," he said. "Look, I went through the trouble of slicing my wrists just to get help around here.”
McDonald walks over.
“And what would help look like for you?," she said.
The inmate explains that deputies want to move him downstairs, out of acute care.
“They want to house me with other people who want to jump me," the inmate said. "Different gang bangers are threatening to kill me.”
McDonald asks her lieutenant to make a note to follow up. This is something she does repeatedly during the tour. The notes can range from complaints about things like not getting their mail to waiting too long to see a doctor.
We move downstairs, to "GP", general population. It’s crowded here. There are bunk beds set up in common areas to accommodate all the inmates.
“You can see this is the environment that young man was afraid to come into," McDonald said.
With men piled into bunks on top of each other, tempers can flare. McDonald says there was recently a riot in Twin Towers when some inmates were being rowdy while others were trying to study.
“You know, their problem-solving skills aren’t always the best," McDonald said. "Instead of sitting down and talking it out, they end up in a big fight. So we have a lot of work to do.”
She wants to see more educational opportunities – including life skills classes – in the jails. She also wants more substance abuse counseling. McDonald acknowledges there are a lot of challenges ahead.
"But it’s a management team and a group of people who’re open to change," she said. "We’re open to taking people’s suggestions.”
McDonald promises we'll soon see changes in the county jails.