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Jails: TJ vs. San Diego

Locked up and let loose

Neddy Massaro’s jail is the best in San Diego. She lives on the tenth floor of the sleek Metropolitan Correctional Center, the federal highrise at F and Union streets in downtown San Diego. There are four color televisions on her floor and a microwave oven for heating snacks. The correctional center can hardly be compared to the last prison where Massaro stayed, the state penitentiary in Tijuana, informally called La Mesa. Fifteen men have been killed in that jail since November.

And yet, given the choice of spending equal time in either prison, Massaro said she would rather return to La Mesa than spend another day in the MCC. Life was better there, she said. It was certainly freer. Here, her mail is opened and her room is searched, whereas at La Mesa she got to use heroin or at least got stoned nearly every day for 20 months before returning to the United States in March, one of 237 Americans involed in the exvhange of prisoners between Mexico and the United States.

"I liked it back there," said the 27-year-ol Italian-American, who wears a silver cross and a couple of tattoos. "And I want to get back with my old man."

In La Mesa she fell in love with a 22-year-old Tijuanan and she took a new purpose: to return to the U.S. and work for his release. She chose to join the prisoner exchange because parole laws here will set her free in August. In Mexico she would have remained in jail for three more years.

A reformed prisoner? Yes, she calls herself that, though after talking with her, it's not so easy to believe. She's sworn off heroin and says she wants to get a job, and she gives all credit to the La Mesa penitentiary.

She was born in Berkeley but soon moved to San Bruno, a Bay Area suburb that somewhat resembles San Diego, with its junior college, naval engineering command, and Marine Corps reserve base.

Albert Massaro settled here with his wife, whom he'd met at a party in Oakland not long after the war. She was living then in Berkely and he was fresh from the Navy. Neddy was their second daughter.

She took her father's Italian looks, the emerald eyes and the reddish hair — long curls so much admired when she was three that her sister chopped them off one day with a pair of blunt scissors. Neddy, delighted, called her mother to come see how pretty she was with no hair.

"Oh, she was witty," her mother recalls. "She always had something to come back with when somebody tried to be smart with her."

Her parents divorced when she was four; her mother married again but divorced four years later, and so the girls were raised by their mother, whose maiden name is Trudy Castillo. She owns a catering business under that name today is Hayward, south of Oakland.

Castillo remembers her daughter as cheerful and obedient, but a little lazy perhaps. The girl was also religious, and announced at one time that she wanted to become a nun. "But that was when she was really little," her mother said.

Neddy the adolescent was more inclined to drift her own way than she was to stand and argue. "There were no fights," said Teddy Castillo. "She half did what she was supposed to do, and if you told her to clean her room, it looked pretty good until you looked under the bed or opened the closet."

The fights came later when Neddy was a teenager. Castillo didn't like her daughter's friends, didn't like her daughter's attitude, and so on. The separation that finally came was perfectly Californian: Neddy forgot to put oil in the engine of her 1956 Rambler, a gift from her mother, who flatly refused to replace the ruined engine, "and when a child is 18 and wants to leave home," said her mother, "she just goes."

It was 1968, when incense was still in the air, and Neddy Massaro headed straight for Haight-Ashbury. About a year later she went to prison on a charge she won't discuss. Neither will she talk about the California prison, except to say that some aspects of its rehabilitation program reminded her of Disneyland. Released to the world again, she moved to Los Angeles (the year was 1970) and settled with a boyfriend in Venice, the neighborhood that most resembled Haight-Ashbury, though it now more resembles Mission Beach. Again she holds back on what she did in L.A., saying only that she was living there two years ago in July when she drove alone to Tijuana in a '67 Chevy to spend a couple of weeks in Tijuana. It was her first time in Mexico, her first trip out of the state, and everything went wrong. U.S. agents stopped her at the border while she was driving a friend's car into San Ysidro. The car carried 40 kilograms of marijuana, for which Massaro was arrested, booked, and later released on bail. She promptly returned to Tijuana where her friends kept an apartment near Guerrero Park. Then, on July 13, two years ago today, she was climbing the apartment stairs and was met by three plainclothes policemen who were coming down. To them she was like a present, just what they were looking for — an American woman in her twenties, with brown hair turning red at the ends, and bright green eyes.

They said they wanted to talk to her about some three kilograms of marijuana that were supposed to have been hidden in the apartment. They obtained this information from a young Mexican who had just been arrested for burglary and who said he'd seen the marijuana there.

Though state troopers had arrested Massaro, they took her to the federal jail because drug violations of any kind are a federal offense in Mexico. The day was calm and hot. As Massaro tells it — and she was quite forthcoming with this information — she was taken to an office that was furnished with a wooden desk and a couple of plastic chairs. She waited a while, and then was joined by three middle-aged men who had come to question her. They were all well-dressed, she noted; all wore slacks and expensive-looking shoes, slick shirts, and cowboy hats. They all spoke English.

They wanted to know who owned the marijuana. Was it hers? She said it wasn't — a statement she defends to this day. The talk went back and forth for a while, and then the questioners, dissatisfied, led Massaro to a room at the back of the office. It was completely barren but for three bottles of soda water lined against the whitewashed, concrete wall.

One of the questioners called a young Mexican into the room. He was the one who'd been picked up for burglary. Massaro said he pointed to her and said, "She's the one. I saw her stash the marijuana in the apartment."

To this, Massaro replied, "He's lying!" And then, according to Massaro, one of the agents said, "We're going to see who's lying," and they proceeded to the next stage of questioning.

"I'd heard about this," Massaro recalled. "But I didn't think they were going to do it to me, an American and a woman and everything."

She said she was told to sit on the floor while the men gathered around her, standing. One of them tied her hands behind her back with a beige cotton cord, and then he stuffed a sock in her mouth. Another man uncapped a bottle of soda water and held her head tilted back, nostrils to the ceiling.

Was the marijuana hers?

No, she said.

When soda water is poured into the nose it burns and at the same time makes you choke and gasp for air. And for the purpose of coercion, this water has the advantage of leaving no discernible mark, like an insult written with invisible ink. One moment you feel you'll die of choking heat, and 20 minutes later you look to have been untouched.

When Massaro could speak again, a question came; and when she answered no, more water followed. The questioning went on for an hour or so, twice a day for four days; between times she stayed in a bedless cell and bathed from a sink in the corner of the room. On the fifth day she signed a confession, having, in the meantime, asked to see the U.S. Consulate, an appeal that went ignored, she said, until she signed the paper. In touch at last with the consulate, Massaro didn't ask for a lawyer, but wanted someone instead to telephone her mother Castillo, as it happened, had just returned from a fishing vacation on the Sacramento River where the family owns a cabin. She said a woman from the consulate called and told her in a very polite and helpful way that her daughter was being sent to the La Mesa state prison in Tijuana. The woman explained where and how to send the money that her daughter would need during her stay in the prison. The minimum sentence for a drug-related crime, she learned, was five years without parole.

One confession led to another, until Massaro and eight Mexican men were hauled to La Mesa in the same net that took the three kilos of marijuana. A van took the three kilos of marijuana. A van took them all to the prison late in the night on July 22. The prison itself stands on Avenida Los Charros, a jolting dirt road about five miles southeast of downtown. The walls are bluish-gray, with green heads of tumbleweed growing along their base. Beyond the wall, a grove of television aerials seems to grow from thin air. Atop the walls is a catwalk of white cement, where soldiers tread in full uniform, with helmets and rifles. Although it's a state penitentiary, some 70 percent of the 2000 inmates are drug offenders, according to a former warden. These technically are prisoners of the federal government, but since there is no federal prison — the government has promised to build one — these federal inmates crowd into La Mesa, and many smuggle their drugs in with them. With the drugs come weapons to protect the sharp trade — and La Mesa becomes a minefield of dangerous grudges. Last month the warden and eight other persons were killed in an ambush and gun battle that followed. The warden, 37-year-old Salvadore Gonzalez Gutierrez, had promised to end violence at La Mesa, and bravely humiliated the leader of a prison gang by taking away his gun in public. The gang leader took his revenge another day. He slyly led the warden into the prison yard, saying an inmate had a pistol to surrender. The warden took three shots in the stomach and died where he fell. Then the gang leader, whose confession was probably coerced, was sent to another prison to face the maximum sentence of Mexican law — 30 years.

From the wall of La Mesa, the prison looks fairly spacious, owing to the large main yard, a soccer field of dirt. This is bordered by shops that the prisoners own and run — El Mirador restaurant, taco stands, a laundry. Then there is the park with its fenced-in scrap of grass and trees, its ropeless boxing ring, and a basketball court; and last, the "corral" where most of the men's cell-blocks are huddled within a wire fence. Here, in outdoor shanties, live some of the prison's poorest inmates, many of whom are junkies scraping together whatever they can to buy doses of brown heroin. Far from the corral, on the other side of the soccer field, wealthy prisoners have been able to buy apartments — called caracas — for $10,000 or more each. Along one wall these apartments form a block that the inmates call "Hollywood."

That night when she arrived, Massaro was wearing the same clothes she'd slept in for nine days. It was midnight. With no briefing, no paper-signing, not even a blanket, she was left in the courtyard of the women's cell-block. It was in these first moments that Massaro formed her opinion of the prison and its inmates.

"I was sitting on a bench outside in the courtyard —  I didn't have any money, no place to sleep — and this girl came up to me and asked me if I was new there. I said yeah. So then she took me up and gave me clean clothes and a blanket; some other girls cooked me eggs....

"So I think people have the wrong idea," Massaro went on, speaking from the visiting room of the Metropolitan Correctional Center. "They think we all came back because it was so bad over there, and it wasn't. I learned a lot of things in the time I spent there — like people who don't have anything are willing to share what they have. People I didn't even know were willing to help me out. They gave me a blanket, a place to sleep. They loaned me money and I paid them back."

Her loans lasted as long as it took her mother to send the money orders, about 50 dollars a week. With this she repaid her debts and strengthened her credit, as credit is the staple of any community where money comes and goes so easily. A small bribe or favor gained access to the men's side of the prison, where Massaro rejoined her comrades who had been arrested and found herself with a life and activities that were almost as interesting inside the prison as they had been on the outside.

"I remember talking to Neddy on the phone," her mother said, "and she sounded really good. That girl surprises me. Well, she surprises everybody, the way she can get along. I heard her speaking to someone in the background while I was on the phone to her, and she was speaking Spanish as though she really knew it. And she didn't learn it from me — I can't speak a word. Imagine her learning so well!"

Massaro had more surprises coming for her mother. In prison, at a courtyard dance, she met Danny Lizarraga and promptly fell in love with him. "And the next thing you know, we were living together."

Massaro went on: "People can live a normal life in that prison. It really is like a little city; and inside the walls, you can do whatever you want."

The more one wants, however, the more money is required. Her lover had enough money to buy a small apartment away from the men's cell-blocks, a practice that has since been stopped with a change of the prison administration, and he had enough influence to see that his girlfriend could stay with him for weeks on end without returning to the women's cell-block every night.

They called their apartment "The Penthouse," since it was built atop an unfinished cell-block and they had to climb 11 rungs of a ladder to reach their front door. Lizarraga then was an assistant to the prison's head inmate, or cabo general, who is an official appointed by the administration to help direct the prisoners. Lizarraga therefore was a man of some means at La Mesa. His caraca was comparable to any enjoyed by the prison's upper-middle-class, which included several Americans.

"The room was small," Massaro said, "about eight by ten feet, and it was made of plywood for two walls, and the other two walls were brick. We had a green carpet and we painted the room beige. The bed was a foam mattress covered with printed sheets of green and yellow roses. On top of the dresser we kept our black and white Sony television, and on a little table next to the bed we had our portable stereo cassette player. Next to that we had a rack with tapes, mostly oldies but goodies, but also some Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Malo. Then on the wall, we had a large mirror where we pinned photos we had taken from the time we started going together."

As a finishing touch they hired a metalworker to install iron bars in a decorative floral design over the window, designed to keep other prisoners from breaking in.

How good can life be at La Mesa? Massaro said that her daily routine, when she lived with Lizarraga, was to rise at seven and walk to the yard's main gate, where her presence satisfied the guard's roll call. Then she went back to bed or took a shower and was out in the yard by 11, having coffee, talking with friends. She says she got stoned every day, and when she could afford it she shot heroin. A couple of times she also had a tattoo pricked into her skin — a little red butterfly at the top of her chest, and a stark blue etching on her left arm, a crucifix and the words "Danny Amor Mio."

So life for Massaro was easy back there. With money, a lover, a comfortable apartment and drugs, she lived each day without fear or worry. Her agony came, oddly enough, when she had to decide whether to leave La Mesa and return to the U.S.

"Danny didn't want to talk about it," she said. "He didn't want me to leave him. Once I was supposed to sign some papers to prove that I was a U.S. citizen and he walked in and said, 'No-no-no-no-no-no-no,' like that, and the tore the papers up."

Massaro agreed that the sooner she returned to the U.S., the sooner she could start to work at her mother's catering business and earn enough to help him join her in California "He said I should do what I thought best." And Massaro thought it better to spend four months in the U.S. than three more years in Mexico. (The U.S. Justice Department, incidentally, agreed to drop the charges for snuggling the 40 kilos of marijuana into San Ysidro in exchange for Massaro's pleas of guilty to a charge of felony bail jump. She incurred that charge when she returned to Tijuana after her arrest in the U.S.; she'll serve no extra time for that infraction.)

So returning to the U.S. was a good choice, said Massaro. It was lucky as well, since shortly after her arrival here, Lizarraga was transferred from La Mesa to the state jail in Mexicali. His boss, the cabo general, had been ousted with a change of prison administration, and Lizarraga was put out with him.

Now, rather than return to La Mesa even for a visit, Massaro says she plans a trip to Mexicali, for which she'll need permission from her parole board. In the company of Lizarraga's mother and sister, she hopes to be admitted to the prison for a wedding ceremony — her own — and thereby prepare for the day when she and Lizarraga will be reunited for good. She told a reporter that she hopes to bring her husband back to the States.

"But as a convicted felon, he can't immigrate to the U.S.," the reporter told Massaro last week.

"Really?" she said. "Who says?"

"Albert Garcia, an immigration guy in San Ysidro. He quoted the section — 212, A-23 — straight from the Immigration and Naturalization Act."

"Oh," said Massaro. "Well, I'll just have to bring him in as an illegal alien."

"Would you be willing to live with him in Mexico?"

A pause.

"Yeah. If I have to I'll do that."

Says Trudy Castillo: "I don't know whether the prison down there did any good or not, but I know I've never known Neddy to be so serious."

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