At the tail end of the Obama administration, I was locked up a stone’s throw away from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ infamous Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York, or MCC NY, in downtown Manhattan, where Guzmán is currently being held during his ongoing federal trial. I was there writing and waging a hunger strike when El Chapo first arrived. Much has been written about El Chapo’s trial, but close to nothing about the conditions of his confinement, as the security around him has made access off limits to any journalist other than me.
I’m an imprisoned human rights activist and political journalist focusing on protecting institutionalized children from common tortures in America like these:
I’m currently suing the Bureau of Prisons and MCC NY for both state and federal civil rights violations, related to the conditions where El Chapo is held, and I’m exploring class-action certification. My lawsuit against MCC NY offers a new and rare glimpse into prison life in the solitary confinement cells that El Chapo has now called home for nearly two years. Besides simply recovering my fees and costs, however, my goals aren’t financial. Instead I’m asking the court to force MCC NY to respect human dignity, the First Amendment, federal regulations, and other human and civil rights.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the 10-South unit at MCC where El Chapo is being housed. Much of that is fueled by the effects of it being a “SAMs” or “special administrative measures” unit. As such, the inmates aren’t supposed to come into any visual or other contact with other inmates.
Even magazines they receive in the mail must be prescreened by the FBI for the supposed reason of intercepting hidden messages. Outbound communications are similarly restricted and monitored in real time.
But it’s virtually impossible to prevent inmates from seeing other inmates. For my part, I was regularly paraded to the 10-South medical exam room during my 81 consecutive days in solitary confinement at MCC NY, and I shopped at the 10-South commissary. When I caught glimpses of El Chapo being moved, I noted his unassuming appearance. He was about my height and weight, and I’m 5-foot-7, 180 pounds (obviously, though, I weighed less during my hunger strike).
Once El Chapo arrived at MCC NY, the staff appeared to be doing everything they could to get him to roll on the rest of the Sinaloa Cartel and especially to try to get him to reveal where he’s allegedly hiding $1 billion or so in assets in Mexico. The prison transferred Spanish-speaking staff to his unit in case he ever let something slip in his native language. This also seemed to be part of a “good cop, bad cop” routine. They vacated the cell next to his in an apparent effort to reduce his conversational options. They seemed to hope that he’d get lonely and decide to speak to prison staff.
Even within the “SAMs” program though, El Chapo was subject to extra precautions. While every inmate in 10-South is also on a status called a “lieutenant hold,” which requires using a lieutenant and two lower-ranking correctional officers to move them anywhere, El Chapo was a “three-lieutenant hold,” meaning that three lieutenants were necessary to move him. Finding three available lieutenants was no easy task, which meant that moving El Chapo was always an all-consuming process.
The facility itself is trash, with cockroach-infested meal trays and frigid, leaky cells. One inmate resorted to drinking from his toilet when the water was shut off. (Its sister facility across the river is now the subject of public attention, as detainees have been living without heat.)
In my lawsuit, I also describe how, as a member of the press, my First Amendment rights were violated. Among other things, MCC NY and its warden refused to let me send sealed media mail to Rolling Stone, which was profiling me and my case, as they were required to do by federal regulation. According to them, Rolling Stone didn’t qualify as a legitimate national news organization.
Here’s what I think they didn’t want Rolling Stone and its readership to see:
My proximity to El Chapo might also explain why the prison wouldn’t let Rolling Stone or Wired interview me in the prison.
Some inmates, however, saw at least one benefit from the alleged drug lord’s arrival. Once he was in 10-South, the kitchen served his unit tacos for dinner.