Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: How guards play the retribution game in Florida prisons

Shawn “Jiggaman” Rogers must have seemed the perfect instrument for bloody retribution.

Vicious, violent, angry, racist, known for his prison gang affiliations, known for his brutal attacks on other inmates, known to rape other prisoners, known for bragging about his status as a lifer with nothing to lose, Jiggaman, at 6-4 and 210 pounds, embodied all the attributes needed to fix a skinny, troublesome white punk like Ricky Martin.

Martin, 24, a petty criminal near the end of his six-year-stretch, had had the temerity to complain to prison officials that guards were running an illicit fight club in the chow hall.

How do officers deal with a rat? It’s a simple formula, apparently foolproof in the Florida prison system. On March 30, 2012, guards at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, 25 miles east of Pensacola, put the snitch in the same cell with Jiggaman.

It was a marriage made in hell.

Within a few hours, the snitch — his hands and feet bound — had been beaten into a bloody, fatal coma.

Oddly, both actors in this horrible prison drama were aware that they were being manipulated by the guards, like marionettes, albeit marionettes decorated with prison tats.

Among the extensive number of documents examined by my Herald colleague Julie Brown, in her investigation of yet another wrenching instance of prison brutality, was a grievance Martin had sent the Florida Department of Corrections inspector general four months earlier. He had written that prison officers, angry because he had blown the whistle on their fight club, “had told me that I was a snitch and told inmates about the incident. Now I have inmates and officers after me, my life is in jeopardy.”

He wrote, “I’m asking for help. Please take this matter seriously because my life is on the line.”

Shawn Rogers was mindful that his own awful acts were being choreographed by the screws. In a handwritten letter to the judge in the Martin murder case, he stated, “It’s no military secret that I have been one of the most vicious and violent prisoners in the entire state of Florida. My disciplinary history reflects numerous assaults, stabbings, slashings, fights and a blatant disregard for authority of any kind.”

Jiggaman Rogers continued, “Your honor, I’m pretty sure that you’ve been dealing with the Department of Corrections long enough to know what goes on and what type of games get played.” He said that when the guards moved him in the cell that day with Martin, “the people in charge knew that me and Mr. Martin was gonna have a serious problem.”

That problem manifested within minutes. “So I knocked Mr. Martin out, tied him up and at first cut him up a little bit. Then I beat him with batteries I had in a sock until the sock broke.” Then, “I stomped on his head. Repeatedly. I knew that either he was gonna die or be brain dead at the very least.”

His letter, which begs the judge for a quick death sentence, went on with even more harrowing, bizarre, sick details of the killing and described how he urinated on the victim’s prayer rug. (Rogers, however, asserted that he was “mentally sound,” except for “anger problems.” He added, “I believe we all deal with anger issues from time to time.”)

Julie Brown found statements from 28 prisoners on the cellblock that day who said they heard Rogers tell the guards that Martin was in danger. Several said they warned officers that Rogers was going to harm Martin. Prisoner after prisoner along the block gave statements that they had heard the horrible beating and Martin’s screams. They heard Rogers yelling, “Who wants to see me kill this cracker?”

Somehow, the guards heard none of the ruckus. When officers finally peered into the cell, the prisoner was bleeding, bound, lying face down on the floor, his shorts pulled down to his knees, the desecrated prayer rug tossed over his body. Their initial reaction, when the unconscious Martin failed to respond, was to douse him with pepper spray through an opening in the steel door, a DOC-prescribed act, perhaps a precaution to make sure the prostrate prisoner wasn’t feigning insentience. Martin was not faking.

Rogers faces murder charges. The DOC inspector general, however, decided that no guard should be held culpable.

Of course, if Martin had not died, if he had just been beaten and raped and terrorized by his lunatic cellmate and lived, this awful tale of prison retribution would never have reached the public. We’re left to wonder whether punishment-by-crazy-cellmate is routine stuff in Florida. Though this seems to be a common enough practice nationally that the Columbia Human Rights Law Review devotes several pages to the legal rights of prisoners when prison officials knowingly thrust them into dangerous proximity with violent inmates.

Plus, the circumstances of Ricky Martin’s very predictable killing are uncomfortably reminiscent of the brutal 1997 murder of a mentally disturbed Plantation teenager whose death also seemed orchestrated by his prison guards.

Michael Myers, tried as an adult in Broward Circuit Court at age 15, had been convicted of sex crimes in 1996, including the rape of his own disabled grandmother. The case had become something of a scandal in South Florida after state officials told the presiding judge that Florida had no locked treatment facility where they could house a juvenile with his profound disorders.

The only words spoken in the courtroom by the slight, pale, slumped, dull-eyed boy: “I do need help. I really want help. Please help me.”

Instead, he was packed off to Martin Correctional Institution, an adult prison, where the guards sure as hell knew how to deal with a sicko like Michael. They decided that he should share a cell with Christopher Soule, 23, who had a shaved head and a white-power lightning-bolt tattoo and 13 felony convictions (including assault and armed robberies) and an “extensive and violent” prison disciplinary record.

The mere sight of Soule would have told the guards at MCI what they were doing when they put that sickly 115-pound kid in a cell with the 6-2, 195-pound known troublemaker. But there were other ominous signs of what was surely coming. The guards would have known that Soule had filed a number of grievances with MCI officials in the months and weeks before young Michael was assigned to his cell.

On Oct. 13, 1996, Soule complained, “I cannot be confined in a room with anybody at this institution.”

On Oct. 29, 1996, he repeated that complaint. “There is no way I can possibly be able to successfully adjust here at Martin. The longer I stay here, the greater the problem will become.”

On May 8, 1997, Soule was explicit. “I will do my best to injure any roommate I may receive in the future.”

Two weeks later, prison guards introduced Soule to his new cellmate. On June 5, Michael Myers was found dead in his cell. Strangled. Surprise, surprise.

A second-degree murder conviction was added to the skinhead’s rap sheet. For the screws who seemed to have stage-managed the killing ... nothing.

Like Jiggaman Rogers said, “You know what goes on and what type of games get played.”

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