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Former colleague: LA's new county jails chief, Terri McDonald, does 'not suffer fools well'

A screen grab of a video showing new Los Angeles County jails chief Terri McDonald, who served as the undersecretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
A screen grab of a video showing new Los Angeles County jails chief Terri McDonald, who served as the undersecretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Courtesy CDCR

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The largest jail system in the country has a new manager, Terri McDonald, who takes over as L.A. County’s Assistant Sheriff for Custody on Monday.

Former colleagues describe McDonald as “tough” and “highly ethical” – qualities that could come in handy as she takes charge of a jail system beset by controversy, calls for reform and a federal investigation.

These, however, are not new dilemmas for McDonald. She comes to L.A. from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – one of the world’s largest, most scrutinized prison systems – where’s she’s worked for the past 25 years, most recently as undersecretary for operations.

"Cutting edge" of change at L.A. County jails

McDonald helped retrain correctional officers in use-of-force guidelines amidst a federal consent decree. She also helped revamp CDCR’s policy on its Security Housing Units, the system’s most isolated prison cells designed to house the state's most dangerous inmates, including prison gang leaders.

Most recently, McDonald was the point person for California's prison realignment process, which shifted custody and supervision responsibility for thousands of low-level offenders from the state prison system to the local level.

McDonald said she chose to come to L.A. because she likes tackling reforms.  

“I think it’s just an incredible opportunity for me to learn and work with an organization that really is on the cutting edge of implementing new changes,” McDonald said from CDCR headquarters in Sacramento.

Some of those changes will likely come straight out of a report issued last year by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. McDonald, like L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, said she agrees with the commission’s recommendations for reducing staff-on-inmate violence in the jails.

“They did a very good job in reviewing factors in L.A. jails and coming up with recommendations that are appropriate and I think reasonable to implement for an agency,” McDonald said.

Hiring signals move toward jail reform

McDonald's hiring stems from one recommendation in the jails commission report: that Sheriff Baca hire an outsider with correctional expertise to run the county’s jails. The previous three jail heads all came from the department’s patrol side, which the commission said pointed to the larger issue that the department generally has valued patrol experience over correctional expertise.

Part of McDonald’s task will be to elevate the professional skills and performance of those who work on the custody side of the department so that working in the jails is no longer viewed as an undesirable stopover in a deputy's career.

“Corrections law enforcement and street law enforcement are really two different branches of the business,” McDonald said. “And finding employees who really want to work in that environment and give it some longevity and really learn the art and science of it, I think, will really benefit L.A. County.”

Wanted: State experience for L.A. County jails management

McDonald’s hiring follows a recent trend in L.A. County’s criminal justice system of bringing state officials to county posts. Last year, the county probation department brought in Margarita Perez, formerly director of Adult Parole Operations at CDCR, in as assistant chief.

Matt Cate, former secretary of CDCR and now head of the California State Association of Counties, said he’s seen that trend elsewhere as well.

“In a post-realignment world, some of the artificial barriers between cities and counties and counties and the state have been removed,” Cate said. “You’re running some of the biggest systems in the world, so you should be out there looking for people who are on the cutting edge.”

McDonald, said Cate, is one of the hardest-working people he knows.

“She worked her way up in Corrections when it was not easy,” Cate said. “She doesn’t suffer fools well, I’ll put it that way.”

Jails and politics

Perhaps one of McDonald’s greatest challenges will be, as a career-long insider, taking on the role of outsider in a brand new system. McDonald said she’ll spend her first days and weeks meeting with community stakeholders and touring jails.

Cate, who as an outsider took on leadership of CDCR at a tumultuous time, can sympathize.

“The strength that Terri brings is in her knowledge of how to safely and securely and humanely operate a locked facility,” Cate said. “The L.A. jails have been the source of a lot of political infighting, a lot of acrimony, a lot of debate. From everything from the L.A. media market to the recent committee, so my advice to Terri is pay close attention to the politics while you’re getting your job done. Because that’s a place you could really easily get tripped up.”

McDonald starts work on March 18 at an annual salary of $223,087. On the same day, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department will also welcome Ted Sexton, the former Tuscaloosa County Sheriff, as chief of its Homeland Security Division. Also on the move is Kelley Fraser, former captain of the sheriff’s West Hollywood Station, who will join McDonald as a commander in the jails.