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El Chapo escaped two prisons in Mexico, but no one’s ever busted out of ‘the ADX’

In this Feb. 21, 2007 photo, guard towers loom over the administrative maximum security federal prison called Supermax near Florence, Colo. (Chris McLean / Associated Press)
In this Feb. 21, 2007 photo, guard towers loom over the administrative maximum security federal prison called Supermax near Florence, Colo. (Chris McLean / Associated Press)
By Deanna Paul Washington Post

There’s a supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, two hours outside Denver. It’s the highest-security penitentiary in the United States. Since opening in 1994, no prisoner has escaped from the Administrative Maximum Facility – known as “the ADX” – one reason former members of federal law enforcement expect the Sinaloa cartel drug lord Joaqumn “El Chapo” Guzman will spend the rest of his life there.

“For him to escape, he would have to have a warden in his pocket,” said a retired federal corrections officer, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a very controlled environment. No one moves there without permission at all. No two inmates move in the facility at the same time.”

The retired officer, who was assigned to ADX, described the entire penitentiary as a singular special housing unit. The Special Housing Unit (or “the SHU”) is solitary confinement. Prison officials at ADX did not respond to a request for comment.

Guzman would be in rare company at the ADX, joining 400 male inmates and a roster of infamous convicted felons: Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bomber; Robert Hanssen, the traitorous double agent; and Zacarias Moussaoui, al-Qaida operative and 9/11 conspirator.

Duncan Levin, former federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice, described the penitentiary as a secure housing unit for “the most dangerous and notorious criminals in the world.”

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

“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 organization 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.”

ADX inmates are locked in small cubicles the size of a bathroom for 23 hours per day, according to Deborah Golden, staff attorney at the Human Rights Defense Center, who has visited the ADX several times. Each austere cell is adorned with a bed (a concrete slab covered with a thin foam mattress) and a 3-in-1, “combo toilet, sink and drinking water unit,” and some inmates may luck out with a single slit in the door that shows a sliver of the hallway.

There are two types of prisoners serving time at the ADX, Golden explained: The vast majority of inmates were transferred to the ADX for disciplinary or management reasons. A smaller number were sent there directly based on their conviction or previous history.

Golden said that Guzman (who escaped from two maximum-security Mexican prisons – in 2001 with the assistance of prison guards and in 2015 through a tunnel underneath the shower in his jail cell) would be a “direct commit.”

According to Golden, the administrative super-maximum program offers a completely different, more isolated approach. With 400 inmates, the ADX also has the highest prisoner-to-guard ratio, allowing increased and personalized attention per inmate.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the country became increasingly concerned about violent crime. The stereotypical “superpredator” loomed large in the public mind – conscienceless criminals who lacked empathy and were so reckless they impulsively killed, robbed and raped. The tough-on-crime stance that evolved under President Bill Clinton’s administration came and went, yet many of its policies and programs, including the administrative super-maximum security prisons, are still enforced.

In a 2017 news conference, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Robert Capers, said the U.S. government assured Mexico it would not seek the death penalty if Guzman were extradited, standard procedure for U.S.-Mexico extraditions, according to law enforcement.

Having been convicted Tuesday of running a drug trafficking enterprise, Guzman faces multiple life sentences; he will be sentenced in federal court June 25.

“I expect the Bureau of Prisons would be concerned about El Chapo’s communication access, his phone calls, email access and letters are likely to be more closely monitored than the average prison there for federal drug possession,” Golden said, adding that the bureau should account for other factors, like medical needs, security and communication needs, housing availability and space.

When you go inside most prisons – even high-security prisons – they’re busy. People are walking around. But not at the ADX.

“The segregation is intense, it’s a punitive environment as harsh as any place on earth,” said Levin. “It won’t be a coincidence if El Chapo is sent there.”

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