Judge Keeps Escape-Artist El Chapo in Solitary

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Unwilling to overlook the Sinaloa drug lord’s highly publicized escapes from high-security Mexican prisons, a U.S. judge declined Thursday to let Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman out of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement.

“Regarding defendant’s particular request to be taken out of solitary confinement and placed in the general prisoner population, the court would be hard pressed not to acknowledge that defendant’s widely-publicized second escape from a Mexican maximum-security facility was accomplished under 24-hour video surveillance in solitary confinement,” U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan wrote.

“The risk attendant to placing him in the general prison population is not lost on the court,” the 18-page opinion continues.

Guzman’s last jailbreak occurred nearly two years ago with help from associates who dug two sophisticated tunnels connecting to the cartel leader’s cell. Footage of the escape went viral, humiliating the Mexican government.

By the time authorities caught up with Guzman, extraditing him to the United States, Department of Homeland Security agent Angel Melendez vowed that it would be the last time. “I assure you,” Melendez had said, “no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom.”

But Guzman’s defense attorneys complained that prison officials went too far, denying Guzman visitation time with his wife and lawyers, impeding his right to a fair trial.

Amnesty International, a longtime critic of U.S. solitary-confinement practices, took up Guzman’s cause. The group wanted to send its observers to watch Guzman inside New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center, but Judge Cogan found that the group’s involvement would only serve to “further sensationalize an already sensationalized case.”

“The motion is denied for reasons unrelated to arguments about opening a ‘floodgate’ to similar requests or any perceived concern that anyone from Amnesty International would pass along messages from defendant; rather, the motion is denied because there is absolutely no reason to have a self-appointed inspector make any such assessment,” he wrote.

Amnesty International USA spokesman Eric Ferraro vowed to keep the heat up on the federal prison in Brooklyn.

“Amnesty International has fought for over 15 years to gain access to this prison facility based on serious human rights concerns, and we will continue our critical work at this facility and others like it,” Ferraro said in a statement.

In its letter on Guzman from March 28, Amnesty reiterated its position that long-term solitary confinement could meet the international legal definition of torture.

“Recent reports suggest that Mr. Guzman has difficulty breathing and suffers from a sore throat and headaches due to his conditions of confinement,” the letter says. “He has also complained that the air conditioning in the [Special Housing Unit] is kept at extremely cold levels, to the point where he is left shivering, and without proper clothing to stay warm.”

With an estimated 80,000 people in solitary every day, the United States shows no signs of ending a practice condemned by the United Nations. Six years have gone by since UN torture rapporteur Juan Mendez called for a worldwide moratorium on isolation longer than 15 days, a standard by which most European countries abide.

Relaxing one aspect of his confinement, prosecutors allowed Guzman to write letters to his beauty-queen wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, provided that the government screens the letters before it sends them.

Guzman previously had been prohibited from doing so under the so-called special administrative measures, put in place after 9/11 to allow government monitoring of communications by certain inmates.

Cogan specified that Guzman will be able to write his wife only about “retention of private counsel, payment of private counsel, and [topics] of a personal nature.”

On Friday, the court will hold a hearing on the government’s efforts to disqualify Guzman’s attorney, David Patton with the Federal Defenders of New York.

As the leader of the pro bono group, Patton has represented many clients charged with narcotics offenses connected to the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors say that these ties could interfere with Guzman’s right to a fair trial, but the drug lord’s attorneys say this argument would prevent Guzman from having any legal defense at all.

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