First female warden in charge at California Men's Colony


Terri Gonzalez takes command of the California Men’s Colony with more than two decades of experience, and a quiet confidence.

What you won’t read on her résumé is her latest achievement: Gonzalez is the first female warden at the prison in its 56-year history.

She succeeds John Marshall, who retired after seven years in the post.

Gonzalez is nonchalant about being a woman overseeing the medium/minimum-security prison housing 6,400 male inmates west of San Luis Obispo. She will quickly tell you that women long ago breached the ranks and can be found in key management positions throughout the state Department of Corrections’ 33 adult penitentiaries.

Today, she is one of eight female wardens overseeing state prisons.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1988, Gonzalez started her career on a whim as a correctional officer at Corcoran State Prison.

The economy was down, and the small dental business she owned with her then-husband in Visalia was struggling. At the same time, new prisons were being built and jobs were abundant.

She sought the job at the urging of her ex-husband who worked there — hoping the job stability would carry her through the down economy.

Gonzalez’s daughter, who is now pregnant with her first child, was only 3 years old at the time.

“When I first started my career with the department, I felt compelled to do my job better than my male counterparts,” she said. “Partly because I am inherently an overachiever but also because I felt that I had to prove myself on a daily basis.”

She was up to the test.

“Men were less comfortable with female officers as partners for the obvious reasons of strength and size in the event that you had to get involved in a fight or confrontation with the inmates,” Gonzalez said. “Therefore, I think a lot of us felt it necessary to prove ourselves every day in order to be accepted and fit in.”

Despite the challenge, her peers became family. And she continued to work her way up the ranks at Corcoran, ultimately ending her time there in 2002 as a correctional captain in charge of the institution’s security operations.

Gonzalez, 53, joined CMC in 2005 as a correctional administrator and continued to ascend, eventually working alongside Marshall as a chief deputy.

Marshall advocated for Gonzalez’s appointment to warden, saying that her background and proven skills were what CMC needed in its next leader.

“She is a decision maker, and she’s willing to make the needed calls in the event that something goes wrong,” Marshall said. “I leave the prison in good hands.”

Gonzalez was assigned as the warden of CMC on March 22. At the end of a yearlong vetting process, including an extensive background investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, she will be officially appointed as warden by the governor and potentially make about $129,000 annually.

Managing 2,200 workers

Much of Gonzalez’s day is spent in meetings. Her main task is overseeing the inner workings of the many departments that represent more than 2,200 employees and managing the prison’s $153 million annual budget.

Both those numbers will grow by year’s end when a mandated 50-bed mental health crisis unit is added to the prison.

The prison is aged, and its infrastructure needs constant care to remain functional.

“Our operations staff works daily just to keep the walls standing,” Gonzalez joked.

It is her job to lobby in Sacramento for the money needed to fix things such as leaky roofs and deteriorating facilities.

“The budget is obviously a major issue for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,” Gonzalez said. “We are continually tasked with doing more with less, given the number of court-driven mandates for services we are required to provide for inmates.”

She also spends time walking the prison grounds, talking with inmates.

“The inmates need to know that their issues are being heard all the way up to the warden’s level,” she said, adding that inmate advisory councils meet routinely with managers to discuss issues and concerns from the various facilities. “It gives them a voice,” she said.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.