San Francisco State University, The Architecture of Imprisonment, Class 4

September 21, 2013

Michael G. Santos


Ronnie Massaro: Leader of Convicts in High-Security United States Penitentiary

After providing lengthy lectures for three Architecture of Incarceration classes, I was happy to invite a guest speaker to visit with our students at San Francisco State University. Soon after I walked in, I told the students that a man who had served multiple decades in prison would join us at 5:00 pm. Since I would have about one hour with the students before our guest speaker would arrive, I opened our class for a discussion. The students could ask me anything about what they had read in the first 11 chapters of Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, about videos that I showed in previous classes, or about anything I said during early lectures.

The first question concerned cellphones. A student wanted to know why prison authorities made such a big deal about cellphones.

Communications from Prison to Society

The student’s question prompted an opportunity for a lengthy discussion. To make the discussion more interactive, I took the time to help the future criminal justice professionals understand more about life in prison.  I asked their thoughts on mechanisms people in prison had to communicate with loved ones outside. In time, we arrived at the correct answers. Prisoners could connect with people in society through three mechanisms:

  • Visits
  • Mail
  • Telephone / quasi email systems

Administrators controlled visits, mail, and telephone with strict rules that governed the amount of time that prisoners could access visits, mail, and telephone privileges. In federal prisons, for example, prisoners could only use the telephone for a maximum of 300 minutes per month. Further, when authorities found that prisoners violated rules inside of the institution, they imposed sanctions that routinely resulted in the loss of access to visits, telephone, quasi-email systems, and in some cases, mail.

Ironically, social scientists routinely found that offenders who maintained close family and community ties were the least likely offenders to recidivate. See the Second Chance Act of 2008, for example. That legislation states verbatim the importance of family and community ties. Nevertheless, the system of corrections routinely severed opportunities for prisoners to maintain those ties by sanctioning prisoners with loss of access to telephone and visits. A prisoner who participated in a three-way phone call between with his child and mother, for example, could lose his access to telephone privileges for one year. If the prisoner made a second three-way phone call after his privileges had been reinstated, administrators could take his access to telephone and visiting for five years.

The many rules, regulations, policies, and procedures gave rise to an enormous underground economy in every prison. Readings in both Inside: Life Behind Bars in America and Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term showed how that underground economy functioned. Basically, the enormous amounts of administrative control had the unintended consequence of created a robust market for contraband within the institution. Since most prisoners valued their opportunity to connect with the outside world, for both good and bad reasons, cellphones became a hot commodity.

When authorities found that prisoners had violated disciplinary infractions, and they sanctioned those prisoners with loss of access to telephone, they simultaneously created a demand for cellphones. Further, authorities influenced the demand for cellphones by charging extortionate rates for authorized telephone calls. In the federal prison system, prisoners had to pay .23 for every minute of telephone access. Since most prison families were poor, that cost became prohibitively expensive.

Introduction of Contraband

That led to the next question of how prisoners managed to smuggle cellphones (and other forms of contraband) into the secure boundaries of a prison. Authorities defined contraband as anything that was not issued through appropriate, sanctioned channels by the institution. Authorities considered cellphone possession as being a greatest-severity offense because cellphones threatened security of the institution. Nevertheless, because of the high demand, prisoners conspired to bring in more cellphones routinely.

Prisoners introduced contraband into an institution through a few different mechanisms:

  • Contraband could enter institutions by being secreted into the mail.
  • Visitors could pass contraband to prisoners during visits, and the prisoners could smuggle contraband inside.
  • Corrupt staff members could mule contraband into the institution.
  • In minimum-security prisons, where prisoners routinely mixed with people in society through sanctioned work details, prisoners could mule contraband into institutions.

I asked for a class volunteer to dramatize efforts staff members made in blocking contraband from entering an institution. One of those efforts included frequent use of searches. Depending on security level, prisoners who entered or exited the visiting room would have to go through various levels of body-search procedures.

  • Prisoners and visitors would have to walk through electronic devices that were designed to detect contraband upon command.
  • Prisoners and visitors would have to submit to a series of pat-down searches upon command.
  • Prisoners (and sometimes visitors) would have to submit to strip searches before entering.

Despite those precautions that staff members took to block contraband from entering or exiting the visiting room, prisoners still succeeded in overcoming those hurdles. Having been conditioned to pursue immediate gratification, some prisoners thought the potential reward was worth the potential risk.

From my perspective, I explained, authorities could very easily cut down on the use of cellphones by opening access to telephones for prisoners in prison. If authorities authorized prisoners to access phones at a cost that did not gauge them financially, and if they didn’t penalize prisoners by taking away telephone access for 12 months because of trivial rule violations like three-way phone calls with family, the demand for cellphones would drop considerably. Such changes, however, would have other implications. Prisoners would be able to maintain closer ties to society, and those who made rules that governed prison wanted to sever such ties during the period of confinement. They focused on “preserving security of the institution,” not building safer communities. The surest way to preserve security of an institution, from their perspective, was to isolate, which became a focus of our commitment to mass incarceration over the past several decades.

Prisoners who could reach beyond prison boundaries without detection were always a threat. Some prisoners maintained ties to criminal organizations that operated beyond prison walls. Authorities had a responsibility to block prisoners from perpetuating cycles of crime. Prisoners who could influence criminals to act on their behalf outside of prison walls could threaten staff members who worked inside of prison boundaries. Another volunteer in the class helped to illustrate that danger as well.

Ronnie Massaro


Ronnie Massaro Teaching About Convict Strategy

Our guest speaker, Ronnie Massaro, showed up at 5:00 pm. It was as if he stepped directly out of the pages of Inside: Life Behind Bars in America. I met Ronnie through my probation officer, Ms. Christine Butera-Ortiz. She had supervised him during the time that Ronnie served on Supervised Release, after his release from a cumulative total of more than 30 years in prison.

Ronnie served all of his time in high-security penitentiaries. He was the real deal, the personification of a solid convict. With his shaved head, his tattoos, his use of language and body gestures, there wasn’t any faking it with Ronnie. I was grateful to him for helping the students of The Architecture of Incarceration truly understand what it meant to live in prison. Ronnie wove stories masterfully to help the students truly appreciate the culture of confinement, bringing the words and stories of Inside to life.

Ronnie dressed in pressed khakis and he buttoned his shirt to the top button, explaining that old habits died hard. By making such a statement, he was helping students understand that many convicts took pride in their appearance while inside. They may not have been able to control the types of clothes they wore, but prisoners could wash their clothes and iron them to sharp creases. He made a point of saying that “prisons breed behavior,” conveying that the rules and culture of an institution trained a prisoner to do whatever was necessary to survive.

Ronnie narrated his experiences, telling the class in his colorful way that he began going into institutions when he was 15. A series of terms in confinement did not “correct” his way of thinking, he said. Rather, each journey through prison reinforced his beliefs about what he had to do to survive.

Whether in state or federal prison, Ronnie described the racism and tribalism that existed inside the institutions. The state prisons were more pronounced with racism, he said, but in either type of facility, prisoners of different races refrained from mixing together. To help the students understand political complications of prisons, Ronnie described ongoing battles between prisoners who lived in different geographical regions. For example, he said that Mexican prisoners had to identify with being from either Northern or Southern California, and they had on-site orders to attack one another. By “on-site,” Ronnie meant that if a prisoner identified with the Northern Mexican faction, when he saw a prisoner who identified with the Southern Mexican faction, he would have an obligation to attack that prisoner as soon as he saw him, regardless of consequences. If one prisoner didn’t attack the other, lethal consequences would follow. Those problems led authorities to classify which prisoners could serve time on which prison yards.

Ronnie told the group about gang pressures, or racial group pressures. If the leader of his gang told him to stab another prisoner, Ronnie said that he would not hesitate. Those were the rules of the prison. No one, he said, could walk alone. Prisoners had to abide by the underlying rules that the gang dictated or the prisoner would have to face the consequences, which could be fatal. A gang leader may have ordered Ronnie to stab a close friend. Ronnie would be given the assignment because he could “rock his friend to sleep.” Ronnie said that while he lived inside of those walls, he would not hesitate to plunge a steel shank into the flesh of another man if his gang leader ordered. Disregarding the order would mean that Ronnie would become a target. Stabbing someone became a routine way of life in prison. Building a reputation for that type of lethal violence was not only necessary for survival, Ronnie said that it was the only way to rise in the prison hierarchy.

Ronnie told the group about the ingenious ways that he created weapons, about the ways that prisoners smuggled contraband into an institution, about ways that prisoners spoke to each other and spoke to staff. He could not have done better at illustrating the subculture of life in a high-security prison.

He described how his reputation for violence led to his becoming a “shot caller” in the penitentiary. Rather than guards controlling the prison, Ronnie said that convicts controlled the prison. All that guards did, he said, was unlock cell doors and tell prisoners to mop up the blood.


High-Security Penitentiary Shot Caller

As a shot caller for the “white car,” Ronnie said that he set the tone for his cellblock. The “white car” he said, included prisoners who identified themselves as being of the white race. If a white prisoner came into the cellblock, the guard would ask Ronnie, as the shot caller, where he should send the white prisoner. The white prisoner would then go through the motions of authenticating himself. He would show his “paperwork,” to describe his crime and criminal pedigree. He would submit to interviews with the “big homies” on the yard to show that he was a prisoner of good standing. They would identify mutual “homeboys.” If everything checked out, Ronnie said that a prisoner was “golden.” The others in his “car” would offer coffee and commissary and drugs to make the new prisoner feel at home. Ronnie routinely emphasized the importance of race during his entertaining and informative presentation. Shot callers from other racial or geographical groups would have that same authority for members of that group.

Ronnie said that while living in prison he never thought about preparing for success upon release. It was much more important to focus on making it through one day to the next. He did that by building his prison reputation, by plotting to triumph over prison rules and regulations. That level of focus, he said, resulted in his feeling much more comfortable in a prison setting than he felt outside of prison. Whenever he left the prison, Ronnie said that he “felt out of pocket.” The prison vernacular meant that Ronnie felt as if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He did not know how to adjust.

When Ronnie faced conflict in the world, he described how he had to check himself from responding in the types of ways that prison had conditioned him to respond. It influenced his ability to find employment or to integrate with society. He did not know how to use the technology of society or to follow the rules of society because he had been so conditioned to living inside of a prison society. He relied upon his wife to keep him grounded, to make progress and stay straight.

Ronnie has been free from the prison experience for four years, which was the longest he had been outside of prison setting since 1977. He was working full time as the leader of a warehouse, grateful for every day of work. Still, he said that everyday felt like a challenge and that even though four years had passed, he would feel more at home inside the walls of a high-security penitentiary than he felt in society.

I’m grateful to Ronnie for helping me illustrate the ways of the penitentiary. He brought the prison culture to life for the students in ways that only a real convict could.  I’m also grateful to each of the students who gave Ronnie the attention he deserved. Ronnie is now more than a man who has been released from prison. He is a contributing member of society and he contributed to the education of future criminal justice leaders.

Students may earn credit by commenting on Ronnie’s presentation. I encourage them to do so. Some suggestions for discussion topics follow:

  • Compare and contrast Ronnie’s description of life in prison with descriptions from the required class readings or earlier lectures.
  • Describe differences in Ronnie’s prison adjustment with other prison adjustments described in class.
  • How did Ronnie describe the path to becoming a shot caller in the penitentiary?