You don’t treat a human being like this

Apparently, Craig Ridley somehow ceased to be a human being.

That’s the only possible explanation for what he endured in a Florida prison. Five days in his cell, paralyzed, trapped in his own useless body, begging for help and being ignored.

You don’t treat a human being that way. Heck, you wouldn’t treat an animal that way. But some of us would, it seems, treat a prisoner that way.

This was in 2017. We are indebted to the Miami Herald’s Nicholas Nehamas for bringing to light both Ridley’s story and the cover-up that has kept it out of the news until now.

Ridley wound up in prison for a 2007 crime wherein he went to the office of a man who had failed to pay him $300 he was owed as a limo driver. Ridley cut the man’s tires and fired two shots from a handgun through his office door.

At trial, he rejected a plea deal and drew a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.

He did his time quietly for nine years until the morning he had words with a guard who then invited him out of his cell for “counseling.” Inmates say the guards often took them to spots where cameras could not see, in order to beat and pepper spray them.

The official claim is that Ridley struck one of the correctional officers, whereupon two of them tackled him to the floor, face first.

“My neck is broke,” he complained. And though he had to be lifted into a wheelchair and braced to keep from falling, they told him there was nothing wrong with him, gave him no neck brace, no backboard. This, even though the place Ridley was incarcerated was Florida’s main prison hospital in Lake Butler, where he worked in the kitchen.

“You ain’t paralyzed,” an officer informed the paralyzed man. According to a witness, an orderly twisted Ridley’s head back and forth, laughing, as a guard and nurse stood by watching. Another guard also manipulated his head, apparently in mockery.

Ridley was dumped into a confinement cell, left on a toilet. He promptly fell to the floor — again, face first. He would lie in that cell unmoving as five days of uneaten food piled up around him. Fellow prisoners called for help, but prison personnel passed the stricken man dozens of times before one of them finally paid attention. Ridley, 62, an Army veteran, electrical engineer and “model inmate,” according to one corrections officer, died a month later.

The coroner ruled it a homicide. No one was ever prosecuted.

To call it all appalling is to understate. But it also seems entirely at one with the times.

Back in the 1970s, one often heard hopeful talk of prison reform. People debated — and implemented — the idea that prisons ought not just punish, but also rehabilitate, that people don’t stop being human just because they are locked up. But by the time of Bill Clinton’s presidency, “soft on crime” had become a deadly political epithet, and no one talked any more of treating prisoners like people. Instead, politicians competed to impose ever harsher mandatory minimums.

The battle cry of the new era might as well have been, “Let the punishment exceed the crime.” Joe Arpaio, the execrable sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., was feted by some for feeding prisoners rotted meat and housing them in tents under the lethal desert sun.

But the killing of Craig Ridley is a reminder that luxuriant cruelty carries a price beyond that paid by the victim. In what sort of civilized society, after all, do people walk past a paralyzed man begging for help?

You can’t deny someone else’s humanity without also denying your own.

LEONARD PITTS JR. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.