A local man achieved reality TV stardom — but not without going to prison.
What a way to make a living.
For Johnny Ramirez, an application for a side job turned into an offer to go to prison as an undercover inmate in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail.
Now he’s a star on the A&E reality TV show 60 Days In, now in its eighth season airing in more than 100 countries.
A little more exciting than his day job at Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino here in Maricopa.
Ramirez says he wanted to experience what his son is living though as an inmate serving a 12-year sentence. His son fought and lost a drug-related, second-degree murder rap in the Arizona legal system.
“I wanted to understand his walk, if you will,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez also wanted to launch a potential acting career and get his face out there, he said.
As a former gang leader in South Phoenix, Ramirez says he thought he had the built-in street chops for the show. You can stream his acting debut on Hulu and Netflix.
With that “15 minutes of fame,” as he calls it, Ramirez indeed got the face recognition he wanted. Today, he says he’s still recognized at the Harrah’s casino, where he works as a water technician for air conditioning.
Would he put his job on hold and do it again for 60 Days In?
“Absolutely,” Ramirez replied in an interview with InMaricopa.
Ramirez left a steady job as a water services staffer at Intel to take on his first reality TV role, which he based off his violent gangster persona as a youth.
He is cast as a criminal convicted of second-degree murder facing a 12-year stretch, like his son.
While on the reality show, he faced constant death threats, fights, a cellmate who’s “not quite right” in the head, and that look-over-your-shoulder scare of being stabbed in the back. He admits it was far more stressful than his real job at the local casino.
Part of the extreme danger was complicated by Ramirez’s never-ending fear of being discovered as an imposter. His stress was doubled by having to convince fellow inmates he was a real criminal.
Getting caught, he believed, would not go well.
What he learned his son was facing was not pretty.
“I was afraid of getting jumped and stuff,” he said. “There was so many fights in there, it was ridiculous. It’s a matter of survival. It wore me out. I lost 25 pounds in there.”
It’s hard and it’s lonely, unlike most other acting gigs. “You’re just a lost individual in there,” he said.
Ramirez says he thought the show’s producers were too focused on drama and lacked the softer, human side of convicted inmates, like when they read mail from their kids. However, he said he realized there was only so much film footage that can be shown in an hourlong episode.
“You just go in and live with the wolves, and try to find the drugs,” Ramirez said of the role he adopted.
Now living in Chandler, Ramirez says he misses the small-town atmosphere of Maricopa, where he lived for five years and was a prolific Little League coach.
“I love the fact that people are trying to make it a nice place,” he said. “And people are doing just that.”