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‘This is Torture:’ State of Healthcare in U.S. Prisons Leads to Brutal Inmate Deaths

Craig Ridley is shown in wheelchair after suffering paralysis (Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

On Sept 8, 2017, Craig Ridley, an inmate at Florida Department of Corrections’ Reception and Medical Center (RMC) in Lake Butler for nine years, called his sister, Diane Ridley-Gatewood, for one of their regular talks. This time he told her he was afraid for his life after filing a complaint against a prison guard who threatened him, she recalled. “Craig, if they start beating you,” she advised him, “you need to get into a fetal position so they won’t hit your internal organs.”

Hours later, around 3:20 a.m., two corrections officers hurt 62-year-old Ridley so badly he was left paralyzed from the neck down. The corrections officers maintained that Ridley was injured after he hit one of the officers and had to be restrained. One of the officers kneeled on his back and neck and handcuffed his hands behind him, according to interviews they gave investigators. But a medical examiner for the family found evidence the officers stomped on his neck. In a video of the episode, the two guards can be seen wheeling Ridley to RMC’s medical unit to be examined in a private room.

The Reception and Medical Center (Florida Dept. of Corrections)

There, a staff doctor said later, the officers said Ridley was faking his injuries and could walk on his own. In the twelve hours following the attack, Ridley was assessed by three RMC nurses and a prison physician, Jean Maurice Dure, all of whom cleared Ridley to be placed in solitary confinement rather than transported to a hospital. He remained in solitary confinement for five days, unable to move or eat, until he developed sepsis and was rushed to the hospital, where he died a month later. After a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, prosecutors declined to bring charges.

Craig Ridley’s killing was just one of a record 481 deaths in Florida prisons in 2017, marking an upward trend that has now spanned more than two decades. In December 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report showing the number of homicides in state and federal institutions in 2019 was almost quadruple that of 2001, when the bureau began collecting data about mortality in the nation’s prisons. In fact, 2019 saw the highest number of homicides ever recorded by the bureau, and prisoners were nearly three times more likely to die by homicide than other U.S. residents.

Black man with mustache wearing a yellow shirt.
Craig Ridley (Ridley Family)

James Cook, a Tallahassee-based attorney representing Ridley’s family, said the failure to treat inmates and the failure to protect them plays a role in those figures in part because many of the doctors employed by these facilities are operating with restricted licenses not allowing them to practice medicine in the community. Such licenses are given to physicians who never completed the required multi-year residency, were unable to pass the state exam, had their medical licenses revoked for disciplinary issues, or were convicted of felonies themselves. Dure, the physician who examined Ridley at the prison, had a temporary license limited by the state to “areas of critical need” such as prisons.

Exacerbating the problem is the admission by the Florida Department of Corrections that state prisons are severely understaffed. In 2022, in response to a statewide shortage of nearly 4,000 corrections officers, Governor Ron DeSantis actually deployed members of the National Guard to various Florida prisons to help staff them.


Inadequate medical care inside prisons is a problem that goes far beyond Florida. It is so widespread that a consortium of lawyers formed the National Police Accountability Project, a non-profit organization working to ensure that law enforcement officers and staff at prisons and jails ensure the right of prisoners to adequate healthcare while in custody.

“In terms of a C.O. (corrections officer) observing an injury and then not doing anything to get immediate medical attention, unfortunately I think that’s so, so common,” NPAP’s executive director Lauren Bonds said.

The NPAP is not involved in Ridley’s case. But it is suing Broward County and the sheriff’s office in the 2021 case of Kevin Desir, who was in the North Broward Bureau detention center after being arrested in January for a traffic violation and marijuana possession. While in custody Desir suffered a mental health crisis and began cutting himself. Instead of being treated by physicians or given appropriate medication, the suit alleges, deputies confronted Desir, tried to restrain him, and when he resisted, they punched him. He fought back, and the deputies pepper sprayed him, beat him and used a taser. Desir went limp after a prolonged chokehold and was then rushed to the hospital where he died ten days later from asphyxiation caused by the chokehold.

Abuse and neglect like this puts taxpayers in a very vulnerable situation. An NPAP case in San Diego, in which deputies watched for 15 minutes as inmate Tanya Suarez, suffering from bipolar disorder and experiencing delusions, gouged her eyes out. “I think there were several watching by the time the second eye was removed,” Bonds said. “They didn’t take any steps to mitigate this possibility where she would self-harm.” Suarez, she said, “is fully blind now as a result of that.” Suarez sued San Diego County which settled with her in 2022 for $4.35 million.

Cook, the lawyer suing on behalf of Ridley’s sister, said that he receives thousands of requests for legal help a year by incarcerated people or their families. Of those, Cook is able to file about a dozen lawsuits and receives financial recovery in nearly 95 percent of his cases, he said. And he has repeatedly sued the biggest private sector healthcare providers, such as Corizon and Centurion.

By 2018, Florida had transitioned all of its prison healthcare services to private companies, one of 20 states to do so, and now private healthcare companies dominate the Florida corrections system. During that transition period emergency room visits increased significantly, according to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, that concluded, in part, “Because the companies were paid a capitated rate “per prisoner” to cover all care—on-site and off-site—they had a financial disincentive to providing costly services, such as outside hospitalization, and there was a decline in the quantity and quality of care.”

These private medical providers are also some of Florida’s biggest campaign contributors. Centurion is a major contributor to former Governor Rick Scott and the Florida Republican Party. The Washington Post reported WellCare agreed to contribute $50,000 to DeSantis after he became governor in exchange for a lunch with WellCare’s CEO (whether the meeting took place was not confirmed), while Centurion’s parent company, Centene, pledged to donate $100,000 in 2019 and has since given the former presidential hopeful even more.

The governor’s campaign team also sought contributions from GEO Group, one of the nation’s largest private prison contractors. The company, based in Boca Raton, operates several prisons in the state and last year donated $740,000 to the Republican Governors Association—the single biggest donor to DeSantis’ campaign for governor, to the tune of $14 million. Centurion and Corizon did not respond to requests for comment.

Officers lift Ridley’s motionless body onto a wheelchair after his injury. (FDLE)

Even with all the suits he has filed, Cook says Craig Ridley’s case stands out as the most egregious case he’s handled.

Ridley was originally arrested and convicted for firing a warning shot after an altercation with an employer. Though he had neither aimed nor shot at anyone, his previous convictions meant that Florida’s “10-20-Life” law mandated a 20-year sentence. He had served nine years at the time of his beating.

After prison physician Dure cleared Ridley to be placed in solitary confinement he was taken to a cell and propped against a wall with his feet touching the floor. Ridley remained there, in that position, for the next five days, unable to eat, drink, shower, or go to the bathroom. Surveillance footage shows a nurse leaving food and water outside the cell each day, then retrieving it hours later untouched. “For five days I watched them starve him,” wrote Moise Cherette, a man housed in a nearby cell. “Every time they stop and he tell them he can’t move, the nurse laugh and make jokes and keep going.”

On September 21, Diane received a call from a social worker informing her that her brother Craig was at Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville where he’d been diagnosed with sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition unless quickly treated. Still, she was unprepared for what she encountered in his hospital room: Craig, four years her junior, former president of the National Society of Black Engineers, was shackled to a bed with his eyes rolling back into his head. Never again, she thought, would they sail or golf or scuba dive together. At best he’d be able to toggle a knob on a motorized wheelchair. Is he brain damaged? she asked. Doctors assured her he wasn’t, only that he was intubated and unable to speak.

By the time Diane flew home a week later, a hospital physician had offered renewed hope: Craig seemed to be improving, he said. He was alert and had even nodded his head up and down. But on the morning of October 12, as she was driving to work, Diane received a call from a Jacksonville Memorial nurse who broke the news that Craig had died. His autopsy confirmed that he had, in fact, been paralyzed from the neck down since September 7, so Dure, the prison doctor, could not have observed Craig walking back to his cell, as he told investigators. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.

The trial date for the Ridley family’s lawsuit is set for December 2024, and Diane Ridley Gatewood is hoping it will be a pathway to justice for her brother and others like him. “What does torture look like?” she asked during an interview. “This is torture. They wouldn’t even treat a dog the way they treated my brother.”

About the author: Dyan Neary is an investigative reporter and professor of journalism at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Her investigative feature stories and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, Elle, the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Writer’s Digest, NPR, and elsewhere, with a focus on health and medicine, the child-welfare system, and mass incarceration.