Life inside America’s toughest prison

 

Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weasled his way out of trouble more times than he can probably count.

He's killed rivals, bribed witnesses, hidden in the mountains from authorities and even had accomplices dig him a long tunnel so he could escape from a prison.

But not this time.

In a US Federal Court on Wednesday, the 62-year-old former co-leader of Mexico's mighty Sinaloa drug cartel was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted for a host of crimes spanning a quarter-century. The charges against Guzman, which included smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the US, money laundering and weapons-related offences, carried a mandatory life sentence.

During his three-month trial in New York, jurors heard evidence from 56 government witnesses who described the cartel boss beating, shooting and even burying alive those who crossed him, including informants and rival gang members.

Guzman has been largely cut off from the outside world since his extradition in 2017.

Wary of his history of escaping from Mexican prisons, US authorities have kept him in solitary confinement in an ultra-secure unit at a Manhattan jail and under close guard during his court appearances. He has repeatedly lamented the conditions in the facility, particularly his windowless cell that was constantly lit during his 30 months in confinement.

During sentencing, he described his incarceration as "great torture".

"(It's) one of the most inhuman that I have ever experienced … a lack of respect for my human dignity," he said.

But that's likely to pale into comparison with the next and final chapter of his life as he goes to live out his days in what is widely considered America's toughest prison.

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who was convicted in February 2019 on multiple conspiracy counts in an epic drug-trafficking case, was sentenced to life behind bars in a US prison on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Picture: Eduardo Verdugo
Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who was convicted in February 2019 on multiple conspiracy counts in an epic drug-trafficking case, was sentenced to life behind bars in a US prison on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. Picture: Eduardo Verdugo

THE WORST OF THE WORST

Guzman, once one of the world's most powerful and notorious criminals, will likely spend his remaining years at the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" - the Supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

It's the highest-security penitentiary in the US, and since opening in 1994, no prisoner has ever escaped.

Located outside an old mining town about two hours south of Denver, ADX - which is surrounded by razor-wired fences, gun towers, armed patrols and attack dogs - houses almost 500 of the nation's most violent offenders. Although federal authorities have not publicly said where Guzman will be sent, US Attorney Richard Donoghue said on Thursday Guzman faced "a sentence from which there is no escape and no return", with experts predicting he's off to ADX Florence.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York professor Martin Horn said the facility was "very well designed for its purpose to hold the most dangerous offenders in the federal prison system".

"In his previous two escapes, Guzman has demonstrated that he may be a greater risk of escaping than pretty much anyone else. That makes ADX Florence an appropriate place for him," Prof Horn said.

ONLY A FEW WORDS ARE SPOKEN

9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is serving his sentence in the maximum security prison. Picture: AP.
9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is serving his sentence in the maximum security prison. Picture: AP.

Most inmates at Supermax are given a television, but their only actual view of the outside world is through a 10cm window that is aimed upwards so they can only see the sky.

Prisoners cannot move around without being escorted. All meals are eaten in solitude inside their 2m x 4m cells. Headcounts are done at least six times a day. Among the current inmates is "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, serial killer Joseph Michael Swango - aka "Dr Death", and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is awaiting execution.

They have access to religious services, educational programs and a commissary but minimal interaction with other people.

USA Unabomber Ted Kaczynski being escorted from the courthouse by federal agents in 1996.
USA Unabomber Ted Kaczynski being escorted from the courthouse by federal agents in 1996.

 

Serial killer Joseph Michael Swango — known as “Dr Death” — is another inmate at the facility.
Serial killer Joseph Michael Swango — known as “Dr Death” — is another inmate at the facility.

An Amnesty International report found prisoners spent years in solitary confinement and often went days "with only a few words spoken to them".

"Other than when being placed in restraints and escorted by guards, prisoners may spend years without touching another human being," the report states.

One former inmate, in an interview with The Boston Globe, described the lockup as a "hi-tech version of hell, designed to shut down all sensory perception".

Robert Hood, a warden at the prison between 2002 and 2005, previously told the Times there was very little consideration given to reforming their behaviour.

"Let's be candid here. It's not designed for rehabilitation," he said.

For many ADX visitors, the most memorable part of the penitentiary is the eerie silence that encases the hallways, The Washington Post reports.

"I don't think I saw another inmate while I was there," former federal prosecutor Allan Keiser said of visiting his client, Sal Maglutta, who was convicted of leading a massive drug organisation in South Florida and sentenced to 200 years.

"It was immaculately spartan. The floors just shined, the walls were clean, the hallways were empty. There was no one around, no sounds."


PRISONERS 'SHACKLED TO THEIR BEDS FOR WEEKS'

Amnesty International previously declared ADX Florence was in violation of the US Constitution, telling news.com.au the facility was so harsh, it pushed the boundaries of acceptable punishment to the absolute limit.

A 2015 report by Amnesty International revealed prisoners were shackled to their beds for days or weeks at a time and kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. In Inside America's Toughest Federal Prison, the New York Times' Mark Binelli said the aim of the Supermax was not to rehabilitate but to simply contain.

Mr Binelli revealed conversations between inmates and Ed Aro, a partner at law firm Arnold & Porter, who is pursuing a lawsuit on behalf of mentally ill prisoners who have suffered as a result of their treatment at ADX.

Mr Aro said a prisoner named Jack Powers - a man who robbed 30 banks armed with only a letter (which he would pass to the bank teller, detailing his demands) and a bit of persuasion - was so adversely affected by his treatment he swallowed razor blades and toothbrushes, cut off his earlobes and tattooed himself with deep wounds, "Avatar" style. In separate incidents he later sliced open his own scrotum and removed a testicle and slashed his wrists. Doctors, though, said they could find no signs of mental illness.

The Times reported Powers was sent to a medical centre for treatment but determined "not in need of inpatient psychiatric treatment or psychopathic medication".

Powers' treatment formed part of a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons that allowed investigators inside to look around and led to a settlement offer and several changes to prison protocol.

But Amnesty International US, which was denied access to the facility in 2011 and 2012, told news.com.au it was deeply concerned by reports of inmate treatment and unconvinced significant changes had been made.

The organisation said it was particularly concerned about the impact of long-term solitary confinement and inmates being denied medication.

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin



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