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Colorado’s Supermax prison now occupied by El Chapo is “worse than death,” ex-warden says

Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, known for repeatedly escaping from Mexican prisons, is now at a federal prison in Florence considered escape-proof, where ultra-violent prisoners once beat an enemy to death and one inmate descended so far into madness he bit off both his pinky fingers.

Guzman, 62, arrived July 19 at Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary, or ADX, in Florence after he was sentenced two days earlier to life plus 30 years in prison.

The drug lord’s incarceration at the nation’s highest security prison, nicknamed the Alcatraz of the Rockies, has brought new attention on the prison that critics consider an incubator for mental illness. He joins some of the nation’s most notorious offenders already at the prison including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols and 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.

Guzman has proven to be a wily prisoner. In 2001, he was smuggled out of a top-security Mexican prison in a laundry basket. In 2015, he escaped from Altiplano prison in central Mexico, where he slipped into an escape hatch beneath his shower, and rode a motorcycle through a mile-long, hand-dug tunnel to freedom.

“Clearly the federal government is very concerned about his ongoing contact with just about anyone, since they fear he will send messages related to drug smuggling. So his isolation will be extreme,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who wrote a book about the psychological impact of long-term solitary confinement at Supermax.

After a quarter century of operation, no one has ever escaped from Supermax. Prison inmates have been diagnosed with insanity while incarcerated there or already existing conditions of mental illness have worsened, according to a 2012 class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Prisoners have been known to interminably wail and bang on the walls of their cells, the lawsuit claims.

One of Guzman’s trial attorneys, Jeffrey Lichtman, said Supermax conditions amounted to “more torture … It’s just awful.”

Even Robert Hood, a Supermax warden between 2002 and 2005, offered harsh criticisms of the facility.

“This is not built for humanity. I think that being there, day by day, it’s worse than death,” he said.

The Supermax prison was built after two Aryan nation offenders, Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain, murdered two correctional officers in separate attacks on the same day at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in 1983. An inmate passed Silverstein a shank, or prison knife, while he was being escorted to his cell after a shower and he stabbed officer Merle Clutts 29 times. That afternoon, a different inmate slipped Fountain a shank and he stabbed officer Robert Hoffman to death.

Several sites were considered for a more secure prison. The deciding factor came down to economics, Hood said.

“Florence donated the land for the prison. That is truly the reason,” Hood said.

Supermax was completed in 1994 and Silverstein was sent there.

“Though I know that I want to live and have always been a survivor, I have often wished for death,” Silverstein was quoted as saying in a 2014 report called, “Entombed – Isolation in the Federal Prison System,” by prison watchdog group Amnesty International.

Most of Supermax’s 400-plus inmates are alone for 23 hours a day in 7-by-12-foot reinforced concrete cells. Massive 12-gun guard towers overlook the prison.

The Amnesty International report said the cells have an interior barred door as well as a solid outer door, compounding the sense of isolation…[ ]

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