Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a notorious drug kingpin of Mexico, has finally arrived in Florence, Colorado. It’s here, at the Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary where he will spend his life sentence (+30 years, according to a judge). El Chapo escaped Mexican prisons twice, in 2001 and 2014. However, his stay this time around seems to be much more permanent— this supermax prison is nicknamed “the Alcatraz of the Rockies” and has never had a prisoner escape since its founding in 1994.
El Chapo, 62, arrived at the facility on July 19, two days after his life sentence. He joined other high profile offenders like the “Unabomber,” an Oklahoma City bombing conspirator, and the 1993 World Trade Center bomber.
All 400 inmates at the ADX spend 23 hours a day in a soundproofed cell, and then have one heavily supervised hour of “rec” time. Their supervised hour of rec time is observed while both handcuffed and shackled. Phones are banned, and there is an extremely “limited” version of television available (meaning: black and white recreational, religious, and educational programming).
Everything in the cell is made of stone, and is structurally attached to the wall or floor. The bed is made of concrete with a small pad as a mattress, a small concrete stool is molded to the ground, and a couple of small shelves jut out from the wall near their in-cell sink.
The design of every cell is centered around eliminating threats. Some cells have a shower, to further limit contact with guards, but they have a timer to eliminate the threat of flooding. The toilet shuts off if blocked. The sink has no tap.
Inmates can earn more daily rec time after a year, depending on their behavior. They don’t remain there forever, the long-term “goal” is a three-year stay, and then a transfer to a less restrictive prison.
However, there is considerable controversy surrounding the impact of extended confinement and isolation on mental health. In 2012, 11 inmates filed a federal class-action suit against the prison, citing alleged chronic abuse and a failure to diagnose mental health properly.
I spoke with an unnamed corrections officer— to have her speak on the would-be escape attempt that she thwarted in her prison. Her prison is a level 4 (out of 5) and is home to violent prisoners, but none as high profile or as repeatedly violent as the offenders at ADX supermax prison. This helps give a sense at the futility of an escape plan in a prison that isn’t even as comprehensive as the ADX supermax prison.
“While walking up to post with no radio, I [saw] an inmate standing in the doorway.” she said, “I observed what appeared to be a water bottle hanging from the roof and when he noticed the look on my face, he took off quickly. I rounded the side of the house (a common term for each individual living complex in a prison) to get a better look, I realized it was a huge braided rope made of sheets, with a weighted water bottle anchored to the end of it. But, it had been caught on razor wire and was dangling.”
“It turned out to be an attempted escape that had gone wrong.” She continued, “There were bags of food and black clothes on top of the house, and a huge foot-long metal rod sharpened to a point hidden underneath the rope.” And that was a level 4.