What El Chapo can expect inside the 'Alcatraz of the Rockies'

Harriet Alexander
The Supermax prison in Colorado is guarded by razor-wire fences, gun towers, heavily armed patrols and attack dogs - The Pueblo Chieftain

His tunneling out of prison cells and safe houses has given him almost mythical status. So there is little doubt that when Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is sentenced in June he’ll be sent to the most secure prison in the United States’ arsenal.

Guzman, 61, is almost certain to be sent to the Colorado “Supermax” prison, in the mile-high desert outside of Florence, two hours from Denver. It’s a facility so secure it’s known as “Alcatraz of the Rockies”.

The complex is guarded by razor-wire fences, gun towers, heavily armed patrols and attack dogs.

The 400 prisoners, including Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 1993 World Trade Center attacker, Ramzi Yousef, and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, are kept in concrete cells for 23 hours a day.

Abu Hamza, the British hate preacher, has been at the Supermax since October 2015, and in December 2017 took legal action to try and be returned to a British prison, claiming the conditions in the US were too harsh.

He said in legal documents he would go back to Belmarsh "in a second", and argued unsuccessfully that his conditions at the Supermax breached his human rights under Article 3 of the European Convention, which protects people from "inhuman and degrading treatment".

The typical cell is a seven-foot-by-12-foot concrete box with concrete fittings, and a four-inch window, leaving its occupants unable to see the sky.

El Chapo's fellow inmates will include Abu Hamza and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber

Prisoners are normally allowed television and newspapers, but given Guzman’s status he may be only given old issues, to keep him isolated from the world.

Prisoners generally get an hour outside a day together in a small caged-in area, but Bob Hood, a former warden in the prison, said Guzman may not even get that.

“He’s such a high-profile person that, in my opinion, he’ll never be allowed on the yard with other prisoners for the rest of his life," he said.

Furthermore, prisoners can only receive visitors through thick Perspex barriers, and often go days “with only a few words spoken to them,” an Amnesty International report found.

Guzman looks out of the window of his plane as he is extradited from Mexico to the US, in January 2017

Human interaction is minimal, and prisoners eat all meals in the solitude of their own cells.

“Other than when being placed in restraints and escorted by guards, prisoners may spend years without touching another human being,” the Amnesty report found.

One former prisoner described it as a “high-tech version of hell, designed to shut down all sensory perception.”

The US authorities are less concerned about his tunnelling out – something believed to be impossible – or his bribing guards, which certainly aided his legendary Mexican prison escapes. Instead they are worried that his money and mythical status will enable him to win over fellow inmates, or order hits on some of the cooperating witnesses who testified against him.

For that reason he may be placed in the prison’s most isolated area, Range 13, Mr Hood said, where inmates rotate between four identical cells.

“If ever there were an escape-proof prison, it’s the facility at Florence,” said Burl Cain, the former warden of the maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“It’s the prison of all prisons.”