Steven Zerbe was black and blue from head to toe, and his eyes were swollen shut. He was in respiratory failure, acute liver failure and had pneumonia when he died — six days after he was transported to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola from Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in June 2014.
Prior to his death, Zerbe, 37, who was legally deaf and blind, had alleged — to both his mother and prison officials — that he had been beaten, raped and knifed during his brief eight months in the Florida state prison system.
So how did Zerbe die? That’s a question that his mother, Bonnie Zerbe, has been trying to get answered for nearly two years. The medical examiner, who initially didn’t even want to conduct an autopsy, said he died of complications of lymphoma. But her son was never diagnosed with lymphoma, according to Zerbe.
His mother demanded the autopsy, his medical records and video from the prison in hopes they would explain how her son ended up so bruised and deathly ill. Prior to his death, she asked a nurse to take photographs of her son, showing what appeared to be large bruises all over his body.
But Zerbe, and many other families of inmates who died in Florida state prisons, have been routinely denied video and other documents by the Florida Department of Corrections, which cites medical privacy laws as well as legal exemptions related to security concerns, to prohibit their release. Often, the only way a family can obtain any information about an inmate’s death is to hire an attorney and hope to prevail in court.
The state maintains that releasing prison video, in particular, compromises the security of the prison system and, in Zerbe’s case, could reveal sensitive information that would endanger officers and other staff at Santa Rosa, one of the state’s toughest prisons.
But two years before Zerbe’s death, the state signed off on a reality TV show that spent eight weeks at Santa Rosa, filming many angles of the Panhandle prison, from the maximum confinement unit to gritty cells splattered with blood. Viewers could get an inside view of life behind bars, revealing where security cameras are located, when and how officers conduct searches, and even get a brief tutorial from an inmate on how to make a handcuff key out of a battery, then hide it in a roll-up deodorant container.
The result was a six-part series, Lock-up: Santa Rosa Extended Stay, which was part of MSNBC’s ongoing documentary series about prisons across the nation.
The Miami Herald, which has been examining the suspicious deaths of inmates in Florida prisons for the past two years, is challenging FDC’s refusal to release prison video, and has filed a civil lawsuit to obtain video relating to inmates who died under mysterious circumstances. Part of the company’s argument is that if the state allowed a documentary crew to film at will for the purpose of entertainment, it should permit parents — and, the press and by extension the public — to examine video that could dispel lingering questions about a loved one’s untimely death.
Zerbe, who suspects that her son was killed or that officers refused to give him medical help until his body shut down, said FDC records show her son was “fine” at 11 a.m. then suddenly “collapsed” for no apparent reason by 9:30 p.m. on June 8, 2014. Serving 15 years for aggravated battery, he had been at Santa Rosa for little more than a month before he collapsed, and he had been complaining that he was ill for more than a month, records show.
“I asked them, the assistant warden, over and over, on a daily basis, to produce videos of my son, daily and weekly logs on his housing, but they never responded. I told them because I knew something was wrong, that they would kill him at Santa Rosa, but they didn’t listen.”
After his death, she was told that some of the videos from previous prisons where he was sent were erased because by law, they only have to save video for 30 days. She said she was told that another video, taken after her son was sprayed with chemicals by officers at another prison, was turned on only after he was sprayed, so there’s no recording showing what her son did wrong to deserve being doused with chemical agents.
After the medical examiner, Andrea Minyard, ruled that her son died of natural causes, Zerbe filed complaints with everyone from then-secretary Michael Crews to the state board that oversees Minyard and other medical examiners.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in its review of the case, concluded there was no evidence of foul play. It its final report, it described the video that investigators looked at — but it’s clear the investigators only reviewed the prison video from the time Zerbe collapsed until he was rolled out of his cell in a wheelchair. The report notes that the video is “grainy” and that he didn’t show any signs of trauma. There is no evidence that detectives tried to pull video in the hours before Zerbe was rushed to the hospital. That footage could show whether officers had checked on him or whether anyone entered the cell who might have harmed him.
Ron McAndrew, a former warden and prison inspector who now works as a consultant — often for those in conflict with the department — said FDLE overlooked several important factors.
“A competent investigator would have rounded up the video for the 24 to 48 hours prior to Zerbe leaving the cell,” he said, adding that the investigators should have also reviewed the logs several days prior to the incident to look for notations that might have involved Zerbe.
Dr. John Marraccini, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy, said it is possible Zerbe’s bruising came as a result of liver failure, but the video — or stills of the video — are critical to observing whether the bruising was evident at the time they pulled Zerbe from his cell.
“The stills from the prison videos should be compared with the ICU [intensive care unit] photos and autopsy photos to see if the skin marks resemble an advancing natural disease or something else,” said Marraccini, the former Palm Beach medical examiner.
McAndrew said that as a warden and assistant warden for the Department of Corrections, he was regularly schooled by the state’s legal counsel on “creative” ways to refuse to turn over public documents and video to attorneys representing inmates’ families.
“It’s really all a game for them,” McAndrew said.
“They don’t want to give you the video because it’s revealing. Some states give it to you straightaway rather than pay attorneys, but Florida spends millions of dollars on legal defense to prevent you from having something that you can eventually get,” he said.
Jeffery Beasley, the department’s former inspector general and current inspector of intelligence, has met with Bonnie Zerbe in an an effort to resolve her concerns, the department says.
The MSNBC contract was controversial at the time it was signed in 2011. It was among a number of issues that led to the departure of then-FDC secretary Ed Buss. When Gov. Rick Scott’s staff learned that Buss had approved a $110,000 contract to do the reality TV show, Scott pulled the plug on the series in August 2011, just as MSNBC had started filming. Scott’s office reviewed the contract, however, and filming continued.
The contract did give the department the ability to preview the footage, though it’s not clear what, if anything, affecting prison security was deleted from the program, since the series focused on what FDC’s own attorneys argue are security breaches.
For example, the series showed the faces and, in a few instances, even displayed the names of corrections officers.
In FDC’s response to the Herald’s lawsuit, it notes that the state is exempt from producing video footage that shows “surveillance techniques, procedure and personnel; images of an individual, identifiable corrections officers, protected health information; information, which if released, would jeopardize a person’s safety.”
It says the concern with showing video from fixed-position cameras is that the footage will show the range and vulnerabilities of the camera network.
McKinley Lewis, the department spokesman, declined to comment, saying that the agency does not discuss pending litigation. In general, he added, the agency strives to be transparent and has fulfilled more than 200 public records requests from the Herald over the past seven months.
“As authorized by Florida Statute, materials that reveal or compromise security system plans within our correctional institutions are exempt from disclosure,” he said in a statement.