Rollin Suttle Austin was arrested for theft, convicted of drunk driving and accused of dozens of brutal, unprovoked beatings.
Victims have alleged that the beefy, bald, 43-year-old amused himself by slamming heads into concrete and grabbing people by their throats and often bragged about getting away with killing a man.
Austin has a mug shot on file, a criminal history with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and was in the Florida prison system for 23 years.
But Austin wasn’t behind bars and his prison uniform wasn’t inmate blue, it was brown. That’s because, until Friday, Austin was a state corrections officer who carried a badge and a gun.
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On Friday, Austin and 31 other corrections officers were abruptly fired by Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews in connection with the deaths of inmates in prisons across the state.
The move, as well as other firings announced a week earlier, came as the department knew that the Miami Herald was about to publish a story about Austin’s long, unchecked history of abuse complaints, and how he and other corrections officers have been able for years to take part in allegedly unprovoked attacks and gassings of inmates.
The firings are part of a crackdown by Crews in the wake of a series of Herald stories about corruption in the Florida prison system.
The union representing the state’s corrections officers, however, says Crews’ firing of low-level staff is a diversion to turn attention away from the real culprits responsible for fostering the prison system’s culture of brutality: the department’s wardens, regional directors and top leadership.
“You lead by example and you’ve got to start at the top and set the standard,’’ said Les Cantrell, statewide coordinator for Teamsters Local 2011, the union representing state corrections officers.
“I’m not telling you that people shouldn’t be disciplined, but taking it out to the first line of officers doesn’t fix your middle management or your upper management.’’
Civility and respect
The Department of Corrections’ 16,000 officers are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and to protect and ensure the safety of co-workers and inmates while treating them with “civility and respect.’’
Despite low pay and difficult working conditions, most of them try to stay true to those ideals, the union and current and retired officers say.
Austin however, is among a small — but powerful — minority of officers whose personnel jackets are stuffed with complaints of beat-downs and threats that inmates and others allege they either participated in themselves or ordered underlings to carry out.
Before he was fired Friday, Austin — who declined to comment for this story — was on paid leave in connection with the suspicious 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution in the Panhandle. One other guard involved in the incident was also fired Friday.
But the commanders and a crew of other officers and nurses involved were never disciplined. Some of them were promoted and given raises, a Herald investigation published last month showed.
Despite Austin having an arrest record, the prison system’s inspector general never reported him to FDLE’s Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission (CJSTC), an independent body established under state law to ensure that Florida’s citizens are served by a qualified, well-trained, competent and ethical law enforcement community.
Corrections has never found Austin guilty of anything more serious than negligence, and he was demoted just once — in connection with using excessive force on an inmate in front of a crowd of witnesses, including an assistant warden.
During his 23-year career, Austin reported that he used force just three times, according to his personnel file. His performance reviews gave him high marks and he was rising steadily in rank and salary, at the time he was fired.
Austin allegedly operated very much the way corrections officers have been trained for decades, according to Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant who studied the phenomenon of “goon squads’’ while he was warden at Florida State Prison in Starke in 1998.
McAndrew testified in legislative hearings that “goon squads” of guards have long roamed Florida’s prisons, attacking inmates and enforcing vigilante justice, while higher-ups turned a blind eye, as they did in 1999 when a squad of guards beat and killed Death Row inmate Frank Valdes.
McAndrew said the sheer number of Austin’s complaints — and the similar pattern of abuse alleged in them — should have been a red flag to his superiors at the prison and in Tallahassee.
“It’s that ‘us against them mentality,’ the idea that sometimes things have to get done, and what you see and what you hear and what you do has to stay right here,’’ McAndrew said.
The way it works
A corrections officer who worked with Austin at Franklin Correctional recalled entering the the department in 2012 with no illusions. He said he knew the system was corrupt, but he was unprepared for how things really were.
“The first thing they told me out of the academy was to forget all the stuff I learned at the academy, that it was all bull,’’ said the former corrections officer, who declined to be identified out of fear of retaliation because he still lives near the prison.
The former officer said the commanders he worked with made it clear that there was a code he was to follow.
“First, they teach you how to write a false DR [disciplinary report] against an inmate. They tell you you have to write it to ‘make it stick,’ to use certain language.”
Disciplinary reports result in loss of privileges and can also lead to delay in an inmate’s release.
“Sometimes they will even write it for you — all filled with lies so that they can say they beat or gassed someone because they deserved it,’’ he said.
Sometimes those reports written by corrections officers have a familiar cadence and wording.
On Dec. 30, 2008, an inmate at Glades Correctional Institution, Damon Satornino, was being escorted, in handcuffs, by Austin when he alleged that Austin, without warning, kicked him, threw him on the ground and began beating him. Seventeen inmates, several corrections officers and an assistant warden witnessed the incident, according to the inmate’s complaint, which was subsequently investigated by the department’s inspector general.
A captain, a sergeant and six officers submitted incident reports describing what had happened, including the aftermath, when Satornino was strip searched, showered, taken to the infirmary for treatment and, finally, placed in confinement.
“It should be noted,’’ the supervising officer wrote, “that there was a delay in video taping this incident due to an inoperable camera.’’
The Herald reviewed the reports and found that they were, by and large, identically typewritten and, with few exceptions, written in the same language, using identical wording, even though they were submitted by eight different officers.
All of them used the term “battery failure’’ in describing the problem with video. Nearly every report began the same way: “I was summoned to front walk for an activated body alarm. Upon my arrival, I observed Capt. R. Austin in a physical altercation with inmate Satorino...’’
All of the reports misspelled Satornino’s name that way (Satorino). All of the officers’ statements ended identically: “At no time did I use force.’’
Two other officers broke ranks, however, writing that they heard Austin tell a major he felt compelled to use excessive force because he was afraid he would lose respect with other officers if he didn’t after the inmate ignored his orders.
Austin was demoted for using poor judgment. He was also admonished for placing the prison in danger of an inmate uprising because the incident happened in an open area with other inmates moving to and from the dining hall.
Beaten and gassed
In 2012, Gary Lloyd, an inmate at Franklin Correctional, filed repeated complaints with the prison’s warden, the inspector general, as well as other law enforcement agencies, reporting that he had repeatedly been beaten, abused, harassed and gassed by corrections officers at the prison.
Lloyd, who was serving 16 months for burglary, claimed Austin was among a gang of officers who preyed on non-white and gay inmates, subjecting them to punishments based on concocted disciplinary reports. According to a civil rights lawsuit he filed in federal court in Tallahassee after he was allegedly gassed in confinement by Austin, he was sent to the infirmary spitting up blood and vomiting, only to be returned to confinement by the nurses. There, he said, he was beaten and gassed again. Lloyd alleged that he was mentally and physically abused regularly by corrections officers because he is gay.
He said the guards wrote that he bloodied himself “banging my head on the wall and sink.”
A sergeant under Austin allegedly told Lloyd, “You’re playing with the best. I’ve been acting for these cameras for a long time. I know how to make this sh-- look good. Every f--- boy needs sh--,’’ Lloyd said in his lawsuit. Like most inmate lawsuits, it went nowhere.
Lloyd’s story somewhat mirrors another inmate’s gassing, two years before at Franklin, where Jordan-Aparo was repeatedly gassed in a confinement cell. Records show Austin ordered the gassings — three times within 13 minutes — because, Austin and other officers claimed that Jordan-Aparo was “causing a disturbance.’’
Jordan-Aparo, a troubled former foster child, was serving 17 months for check forgery when his rare blood vessel disorder, Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome, began to kick up, causing his temperature to spike and pain in his chest and lungs. He pleaded with prison medical staffers to have him taken to a hospital. They refused. In the course of threatening to sue for mistreatment, he cursed a nurse in frustration. For that, Jordan-Aparo was placed in “confinement,” a punitive loss of privileges.
Prison rules do not allow guards to gas an inmate who isn’t disrupting the normal operation of the facility, which might involve, say, taking a cellmate hostage. The guards who did the gassing claimed Jordan-Aparo refused to clean his cell and was causing too much of a ruckus.
After Jordan-Aparo’s body was found on the floor of his cell, still dusted with a glaze of residue from the gassing, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did a cursory investigation. Investigators ruled that the death and the gassing were unrelated.
Last year, four Department of Corrections inspectors investigating unrelated corruption at Franklin got wind of the case and reviewed it. After they tried to bring charges against some of the officers, they say they were retaliated against by their boss, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley.
In July, they filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against the department. As part of the lawsuit, they also have alleged that Beasley failed to report 85 corrections officers who have sustained cases of wrongdoing to the CJSTC.
Neither Beasley nor Crews, the corrections secretary, will comment on the case because it is still under investigation — now by the U.S. Justice Department — and the subject of a lawsuit.
Austin was promoted after the Jordan-Aparo incident, from lieutenant to captain, and received a $3,000 salary bump.
Until Friday’s firing, Austin had spent more than a year collecting his $44,000 annual salary while home doing yard work and enjoying fishing excursions. He likely would have remained a star in the corrections system if not for the death of Jordan-Aparo and the refusal of inspector general staffers to believe that the inmate’s death was from natural causes.
Record of arrests
Though Austin has never been arrested for alleged job-related wrongdoing, he does have two arrests, according to his personnel file, which was obtained through a public records request. One was for theft, the other for driving while intoxicated.
The theft occurred in March 2002, in Clewiston, a town of just over 6,000 in Hendry County. According to the police report, a man told police he saw a bald individual grab a crate of green beans from his pickup truck, throw them into a white Ford Explorer and take off.
The victim noted the Explorer’s license plate number and police tracked the vehicle to a bar a short distance away. The victim identified Austin as the thief, and the corrections officer was booked into the county jail. Austin later pleaded no contest to a charge of petty theft.
Three years later, in 2005, Austin was stopped by the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department after two deputies saw him driving at a high rate of speed, weaving in and out of the northbound lanes, the arrest report said.
After pulling Austin over, deputies said he smelled of alcohol, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and his speech was slurred. He failed a roadside sobriety test and had a blood-alcohol reading of .14.
“He should have been fired for the theft alone,’’ said Chuck Drago, a law enforcement consultant and former assistant police chief in Fort Lauderdale. “That goes to an officer’s integrity. Stealing is very serious. It is a credibility-trustworthiness issue.’’
Trouble on the rise
Working in the isolated, bleak concrete-and-steel world of Florida’s prison system is among the most challenging and — some say — worst, jobs in law enforcement. Many of Florida’s prisons are dirty, lack air conditioning and are severely understaffed. The pay for state corrections officers averages $35,000.
Many entry-level corrections officers — though not all — have little more than a high school diploma.
“We are a group of men and women who maintain law and order and we’re dealing with inmate mental health issues, homeless issues, individuals who are innocent and individuals who have committed crimes,’’ said Norman Seabrook, president of New York City Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association.
“There are some times where corrections officers are accused of excessive force,” he said, “but the end of the day when someone assaults you what is the force that is necessary?’’
According to the Department of Corrections’ own statistics, incidents involving use of force against inmates in state prisons soared more than 90 percent from 2007 to 2012. In 2012, there were about 6,500 reported incidents in which force was used against inmates.
During that span, the inmate population increased 8 percent.
Crews has said he intends to more rigorously discipline corrections officers who commit wrongdoing, saying he has “zero tolerance’’ for those who break the law and violate department policy.
In August, he announced that the FDLE would be given full authority to investigate all inmate deaths attributed to non-natural causes. This came after complaints about the Miami-Dade police investigation into the death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional who was herded into a brutally hot shower and left there, locked in and abandoned, by corrections officers until he collapsed and died. The case is two years old, with no resolution in sight.
Some 85 open inmate death cases were turned over to the agency to review last month.