Held without access to sunlight or his relatives, Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is under more restrictive captivity than any other US prisoner and it is difficult to mount a defense, his court-appointed lawyers said on Thursday.
Guzman, who was the head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, was extradited to the US in January, arriving in New York a few hours before President Donald Trump was inaugurated.
Guzman, who escaped from two Mexican prisons and was a key figure in a bloody drug war, is seen as a flight risk by the US government.
Guzman is restricted to his 20-foot-by-12-foot cell in a New York City lockup for 23 hours a day, with the lights on at all times. The facility has previously held high-profile inmates like John Gotti and close associates of Osama bin Laden.
He has one hour of exercise in a small interior cage with no access to fresh air or sunlight, Amnesty International said in a March 28 letter to Assistant US Attorney Andrea Goldbarg.
Amnesty International is "concerned that the conditions imposed on [Guzman] appear to be unnecessarily harsh and to breach international standards for humane treatment," Justin Mazzola, a researcher for the group, wrote in a letter to federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, where the US case against Guzman was brought.
He has not been allowed to speak to his wife or other family members, and the conditions of captivity exceed any other mainland US prison, including the super-secure Colorado prison known as Supermax, public defense attorney Michelle Gelernt said.
"Mr. Guzman is being held under the worst, most restrictive conditions of any prisoner currently detained by the United States government," Gelernt said.
"Even convicted prisoners held in the notorious federal Supermax in Colorado are allowed to watch television in their cells, exercise outside where they can speak with other inmates, and speak with their families," Gelernt said. "Mr. Guzman enjoys none of these benefits."
In a filing on Wednesday to US District Judge Brian Cogan of the Eastern District of New York, Guzman's lawyers said the strict confinement puts Guzman at risk of psychological damage, and that he may already be "hearing non-existent sounds."
In previous filings submitted to the court, Guzman's defense has claimed the treatment he faces in the US has worsened conditions he developed under strict imprisonment in Mexico over the last year, a period over which Guzman reportedly claimed Mexican authorities were "turning me into a zombie."
"He has difficulty breathing and suffers from a sore throat and headaches," his attorneys wrote in a letter earlier this month. "He has recently been experiencing auditory hallucinations, complaining of hearing music in his cell even when the radio is turned off."
U.S. prosecutors have argued that such tough restrictions — called Special Administrative Measures — are needed to prevent Guzman from communicating with his cartel cohorts still running the multinational trafficking organization and to prevent repeats of his two Mexican prison escapes.
In his most recent escape in 2015, he slipped through a hole in the floor of his cell shower into a mile-long, highly engineered tunnel, riding a motorcycle on rails to a nearby house — a sign of the huge influence he was able to wield even in prison.
The US confinement conditions, especially restrictions on communicating with family members, means it is tough for Guzman to contract private lawyers, since he is not able to speak to his family to arrange payment or discuss potential attorneys, Gelernt said.
(Reporting for Reuters by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Dan Grebler)