If it weren’t so sick, twisted and perverted, the “security concerns” exemptions to Florida’s public records law would be downright hilarious.
Consider the case of Steven Zerbe‘s mom.
Bonnie’s Zerbe‘s 37-year-old son was sent to Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in 2013. He soon began to tell prison officials, and his mother, that he had been raped, knifed, and beaten black and blue.
You would think that a prison system concerned about security would take such complaints seriously, but you would be wrong. A few months after entering Santa Rosa, Zerbe was dead of respiratory failure, liver failure, and pneumonia.
Pressured by Mrs. Zerbe, an autopsy was ordered, and Medical Examiner Andrea Minyard contended that Zerbe died from complications of lymphoma.
That came as news to his mom, who told Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown that her son was legally deaf and blind, but had never been diagnosed with cancer.
Brown is a one-woman Greek chorus bearing witness to the tragedy that is Florida’s prison system. Last week, she turned attention to the public records exemptions that DOC hides behind to block access to any prison video that might shed light on how Steven Zerbe’s 15-year sentence for aggravated battery morphed into the death penalty, but without witnesses.
Brown contrasts the obstruction Mrs. Zerbe encountered with the red carpet rolled out for “Lockup Extended Stay: Santa Rosa – Blood Lines.”
The creepy prison-based reality franchise airs on MSNBC, the cable network that serves as the left wing’s answer to Fox News and a halfway house for disgraced NBC anchor Brian Williams.
Brown reports that the producers of Lockup “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 … 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.”
“Lockup” is a cash cow for the network, but producers gained eight weeks of access to Santa Rosa for the bargain basement price of $110,000. That just about covers salary and benefits for DOC flack McKinley Lewis, who blows off reporters, so public officials have more time to spend fending off growing public demand for independent oversight.
DOC is spending considerably less than $110,000 on prison guards, whose jobs are more hazardous than playing keep-away with reporters.
And DOC is spending considerably more to fight the Herald’s lawsuit seeking access to prison video relating to inmates who died under questionable and possibly criminal circumstances.
DOC relies upon public records exemptions for “surveillance techniques, procedure and personnel; images of individual, identifiable corrections officers, … which, if released, would jeopardize a person’s safety.”
It will be interesting to watch DOC explain, under oath, how reporters such as Julie Brown and grieving mothers like Bonnie Zerbe present a security threat, and a global audience of “Lockup” viewers does not.
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Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant.