Written by Alan Feuer and Alan Blinder
In the coming months, as infamous drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera is finally sentenced and put behind bars, his U.S. jailers will confront a question that long bedeviled their counterparts in Mexico: Given Guzmán’s Houdini-like talent for breaking out of prison — a trick he pulled off twice — where, and under what conditions, should he be incarcerated?
Ultimately, prison officials will make that decision, but lawyers for the kingpin known as El Chapo warned him after his conviction this week on drug conspiracy charges that he is likely to be sent to the country’s most forbidding federal lockup, the US Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, often referred to as the ADX. More colloquially known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies, the ADX was meant to be both punitive and escape-proof, a penal fortress where inmates spend 23 hours a day inside their cells with little human contact and only one window, 3 feet high and 4 inches wide.
“This place is not designed for humanity,” Robert Hood, a former warden, once told The New York Times. “It’s not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story.”
Opened in 1994 on a barren stretch of semiarid desert 40 miles south of Colorado Springs, the ADX for decades has served as the final destination for a roll call of prominent criminals.
Terry L. Nichols — Inmate No. 08157-031 — who acted as an accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing is imprisoned there. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — No. 95079-038 — is also at the prison, awaiting execution for his role in the Boston Marathon bombings. Other renowned offenders who were once in the headlines are held there, too: Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for the Russians; and Ramzi Yousef, who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993.
Eric Robert Rudolph, who carried out a spate of bombings in the ‘90s, including one at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, wrote of the ADX in an essay in 2008 that even when its prisoners were let outside their cells, the surroundings were severe.
“No mountain, bush, tree or blade of grass is visible from the yard, just the sky,” Rudolph wrote. “The cages have just enough room to do aerobic exercises. Other than the opportunity to breathe fresh air and feel the sunshine on your skin, the outside cages are just cells that are open to the sky.”
Inside the prison, Rudolph and others familiar with the ADX have said, conditions were equally grim, with nearly every part of its 500 cells made of poured concrete. Religious services are broadcast on closed-circuit television, as are most educational programs. The showers are halting, the water flowing for a minute at a time and only after prisoners push a button.
“You may find it necessary to depress the On/Off button frequently during the duration of your shower,” inmates are advised in their admission and orientation handbook.
Unpleasant as all this may sound, Guzmán has in a sense been prepared for the ordeal, having spent the two years since his extradition to New York housed in 10 South, the gloomy maximum security wing of the federal jail in Lower Manhattan. There, he has been kept in isolation and almost incommunicado, denied all visits except from his lawyers and his young twin daughters. The conditions are harsh enough that late last winter the kingpin sent a letter to Judge Brian M. Cogan, complaining that he suffered daily headaches, regularly vomited and had persistent sinus problems because of the stifling air.
“The light in my cell is on all hours of the day,” Guzmán added, “and it is difficult for me to sleep.”
Guzmán’s lawyers agree that life at 10 South, where the kingpin will stay at least until his sentencing June 25, may be worse than at the ADX (which is also called the supermax.) One of the lawyers, A. Eduardo Balarezo, said this week that the food in Colorado would be better and that Guzmán would have more things to do there “besides stare at the walls.”
Jeffrey Lichtman, another lawyer for the kingpin, said that the Manhattan jail has “the most extreme conditions I’ve ever seen and that any criminal defendant in America has faced.”
“While the supermax is onerous,” Lichtman added, “I know it’s not worse than what he’s already experienced.”
Some defense lawyers in death penalty cases have used the conditions at the ADX to reassure jurors that defendants who were spared execution would not serve their life sentences in luxury.
“It’s very antiseptic and silent compared to what you expect in a prison,” said David I. Bruck, who defended Tsarnaev. “People are just locked away behind these solid steel doors, and there’s very little going on, very little movement, very little activity. It’s a lot of nothing.”
Officials at the ADX count prisoners seven times a day — at 12:01 am, 3 am, 5 am, 11 am, 4 pm, 8 pm and 9:45 pm— even though the inmates are rarely moved between counts. The inmates are allowed to spend $285 a month at the commissary, where pepperoni slices cost $2.40 and Cheetos can be had for $1.90. Weightlifting gloves are available for $10.40. Meals, mail and medicine are all delivered.
“Everything the inmate needs comes and goes through the door slot,” Rudolph wrote, adding that “the basic setup is for long-term solitary confinement.”
“The purpose,” he maintained, “is to gradually tear a person down mentally and physically, through environmental and physical deprivation.”