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Another Florida Prisoner Death, Another Cover Up?

by David M. Reutter

Faced with the death of yet another prisoner – one of 346 in 2014 alone – Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) officials have refused to release video surveillance of the prisoner’s cell, citing security concerns. The Miami Herald has sued for the video’s release.

Questions surround the circumstances of the June 2014 death of prisoner Steven Michael Zerbe, 37, at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution – one of the state’s toughest and most punitive facilities. Zerbe, who was legally deaf and blind, told his mother and prison officials that in the eight months he was held by the FDOC he had been beaten, raped and knifed. When transported to a hospital in Pensacola six days before he died, Zerbe – who was serving a 15-year sentence for aggravated battery – was suffering from respiratory failure, acute liver failure and pneumonia.

In the nearly three years since his death, Zerbe’s mother, Bonnie Zerbe, has tried to obtain answers as to how and why he died. Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard, who initially did not want to perform an autopsy until pressured by Bonnie, concluded that Zerbe’s death was due to complications of lymphoma. Yet he was never diagnosed with lymphoma, Bonnie told the Herald. And prior to his death she had asked a nurse to take photographs of her son, which showed what appeared to be large bruises all over his body.

Besides demanding the autopsy, she also demanded Zerbe’s medical records and surveillance video from the prison to resolve the matter of how he ended up so bruised and sick. Prison officials denied the requests, which is not uncommon in such cases, citing privacy laws and legal exemptions based on security issues.

In response to the Herald’s lawsuit seeking release of video related to Zerbe’s death, the FDOC said it would exempt any footage depicting “surveillance techniques, procedure and personnel; images of an individual, identifiable corrections officer; protected health information; [and] information, which if released, would jeopardize a person’s safety” – in this case, the safety of guards or other prison staff. It also expressed concern the footage would reveal the range and vulnerabilities of the prison’s security video network.

But that position seems odd considering that FDOC officials had granted full access to MSNBC for the network’s six-part 2012 series, “Lock-up: Santa Rosa Extended Stay.”

In exchange for allowing production of the TV series, the FDOC received $110,000. In return a crew spent eight weeks filming throughout the prison, including the maximum-security unit and cells splattered with blood. The series gave a view of life at the facility, revealed where security cameras were located, and even showed a prisoner making and hiding a handcuff key.

Tallahassee attorney Florence Snyder noted that the FDOC’s continued obstinacy with respect to the video footage of Zerbe’s death had done nothing to dispel claims, such as those of Bonnie Zerbe, that the actions of prison staff or their failure to render medical care may have resulted in her son’s death.

“It will be interesting,” Snyder observed, “to watch [the FDOC] explain, under oath, how reporters such as [the Miami Herald’s] Julie Brown and grieving mothers like Bonnie Zerbe present a security threat, and a global audience of ‘Lock-up’ viewers does not.”

The FDOC has been the subject of criticism related to other prisoners’ questionable deaths, including those of Darren Rainey, who died after being severely scalded in a hot shower at the Dade Correctional Institution in June 2012, and Latandra Ellington, who was found dead in her cell at the Lowell Correctional Institution in October 2014, shortly after sending a letter to her family saying a guard had threatened to kill her. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.1].

On March 17, 2017, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office announced that following an extensive investigation no charges would be filed in connection with Rainey’s death, concluding “none of the correctional officers at Dade CI are criminally responsible for the death.” PLN will report on that widely-criticized development in a future issue. 

Sources: Miami Herald,, NPR,