Judge rejects El Chapo’s prison accommodations request
NEW YORK — A federal judge denied Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s request for better prison conditions Monday after federal officials claimed some of the drug lord’s demands might be part of a ruse aimed at helping him escape.
Guzman, who escaped Mexican custody twice before being extradited to the United States for trial in 2017, had requested at least two hours of outdoor recreation per week, access to the main commissary, the ability to buy six bottles of water a week and earplugs to alleviate headaches and ear pain and help him sleep.
Because of his criminal stature and his previous escapes, he has been designated an inmate subject to special administrative measures, or SAMs, out of concern he might continue running his drug empire, coordinate an escape or direct attacks on people helping the government.
His legal team last month said the conditions of the designation amount to cruel and unusual punishment, but U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan disagreed in his decision. “I agree with defendant that his conduct was and remains exemplary, but that conduct is a direct consequence of the strict conditions of confinement in which he finds himself,” Cogan wrote. “His continued good behavior is not a reason to modify them. It is a reason to keep them in place.”
Cogan also pointed to “credible evidence about a prison escape attempt at (New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center) from the only outdoor recreation area available” for SAMs inmates. That escape attempt occurred in 1981.
The government has previously said Guzman has access to “several different types of exercise equipment, including an exercise bike and elliptical, and a vented window that provides the defendant with access to fresh, outdoor air and sunlight.”
As for the request to use the same commissary available to the inmates in general population, the Bureau of Prisons has prohibited SAMs inmates from possessing many items in the main commissary because they can be weaponized, Cogan wrote, saying he would not second-guess that decision.
The bottles of water are already being supplied, the judge said. Guzman has been receiving six bottles since April, he wrote.
The request for earplugs was declined, in part, because it doesn’t make sense, Cogan said. Guzman has refused to use court-issued earphones during trial, citing his ear pain, he said. “If earphones exacerbated his ear condition during trial, I do not see how using earplugs will help his condition now,” he said. In any case, the judge wrote, the Metropolitan Correctional Center bans earplugs for all inmates because of the risk they might ignore guards or fail to hear guards’ commands in an emergency.
One of Guzman’s attorneys wrote to Cogan last month, complaining that in the two years her client has been detained, he’s had no access to fresh air or sunlight, and must put toilet paper in his ears to mask loud prison noise.
The government responded that the only outdoor exercise space at the New York federal prison holding Guzman is a rooftop covered in wire mesh. In 1981, an inmate’s cohorts hijacked a sightseeing helicopter and attempted to cut open the wire mesh, the government said, describing the prospect of outdoor exercise time for Guzman as “problematic.”
Guzman had earlier escaped from Mexican prisons through secretly built tunnels.
“As detailed at trial, one of the (Guzman’s) escapes involved the construction of a sophisticated, ventilated tunnel that stretched for over a mile. Certainly, an escape via rooftop, using a helicopter, or any related means would be elementary by comparison,” the government said.
Guzman, once the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, was convicted in February of running a criminal enterprise and other drug-related charges. He will be sentenced June 25.
He is serving time in solitary confinement in an 8-by-10-foot windowless cell in Manhattan, defense attorney Mariel Colon Miro has said. The light remains on in his cell 24 hours a day, and the air conditioning is so loud Guzman can’t sleep, Colon said.