Los Angeles County houses the largest prison system in the country. More than New York, more than Cook County in Illinois. As such, any problem experienced in the 57 other counties of California can easily be magnified tenfold in Los Angeles County, home to more than 9 million people.
Earlier this year, amid allegations of prisoner abuse among the rank and file in Los Angeles County corrections, the woman who used to oversee all of California’s state prisons and parolees was brought in to be Sheriff Lee Baca’s right hand woman. In March of this year, Terri McDonald accepted the position of Assistant Sheriff of Los Angeles County.
We had the opportunity to sit down for a candid one-on-one with Asst. Sheriff McDonald recently and we are presenting a distilled version of this dialogue in hopes that our readers gain an appreciation for both the complexity of public safety realignment and the rigors of implementing it properly and cost-effectively in such a massive county.
Here in Part 1, we delve into her background and some of her changes in perception that she experienced when shifting from the county to state level before coming back to the county this year.
Tell us some of your background before we dive into the issues.
I started working at a prison that specializes in Fire Camp. Training Fire Camp inmates. Medium security prison. But I preferred to work with mentally ill, so I transferred to a prison hospital in Vacaville, California and worked with inmates who were mentally ill. From there I went to Fulsom. I worked my way up the ranks, officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain. I transferred from there to the Fulsom State Prison where I was the Captain of the Guard and then I was asked to come to headquarters during the population crisis in California.
California had 173,000 prisoners and I came in and ultimately became the chief over Classification and Population Management, which is the division that moves inmates, does conversions, makes decisions about what levels and all of that. So it’s really the hub and the spoke of the prison population movement business.
Then, in 2006 or 2007, California wanted to embark on this program to move inmates out of State and I became the project manager and the first chief over that division. So I led the initiative to move thousands of prisoners to private prisons in Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arizona.
And what were some of the implications of making such a move?
Well the best part of doing that is that the State was able to start deactivating non-traditional beds. It allowed for the State to begin to close down gymnasiums, day room beds. So the State was able to deactivate 10,000 beds.
At the same time, there was a law passed, SB 678, that funded counties to redirect felony probationers. To keep them at the County level rather than send them to State prison. They got funding for that. So you began to see the waters start to erode, because the system was just growing and growing and growing, running out of space, and it began to atrophy a little bit through the out-of-state program.
I promoted above that job to be the Associate Director which is a job above the level of Warden. After that I became the Associate Director overseeing the reception centers, because the other problem is that inmates come into reception and the longer they take in reception, the more beds they eat up and the less you are able to do County intake. At the same time, Counties are having incredible trouble getting inmates into the State Prison system because of overcrowding there.
So I went to become the Associate Director of the Reception Centers to help streamline that intake process. To try to reduce the number of days that they were in reception and try to fill all the beds that you can fill through Fire Camps or every place that you could move inmates to to get it going.
From that job I promoted to the Chief Deputy Secretary so I jumped a couple of ranks and at that point I over saw all State Prisons in California and all of Parole.
What are some of the perceptions that you held before you were working in State government, that shifted once you got to Sacramento?
I didn’t realize how complicated and difficult it is to initiate reform efforts. Whether it’s the simple concept of change in regulation, in California, to change a regulation it has to go through the Administrative Procedures Act. To go through the Administrative Procedures Act you need to go through a variety of stakeholders to do that. Whether it’s the federal courts, it’s the unions, or it’s the legislature, or it’s inmate advocacy groups, or victims groups, right?
There’s no easy movement in State government. You have to learn to coordinate and collaborate and to be inclusive. I liken it to playing chess, but you’re playing chess on multiple chess boards. You’re not on a single chessboard, you’re making a lot of moves. The other thing I learned is that you burn a lot of jet fuel with no lift off. There’s lots of things that you want to do and you try to do, but either a) you can’t get the resources to do them, or b) the state prison system is heavily, heavily, heavily overseen by the Federal court system.
You may want to do something, you simply cannot get it through the federal courts it’s just too complicated, or it’s not a priority. And the pressure in which and the speed in which everything happens, it can be overwhelming. So reform is like carrying bags of cement on your back, it’s possible, and you can do it, but it requires a lot of sustained effort and you can’t give up. You just can’t give up. You have to celebrate your wins. You have to celebrate them because you don’t get a lot of them. I mean you get a lot on day-to-day operations at the prison level, it’s much harder from the macro level. When you’re talking about system reform it’s much more complicated.