Rikers Captain Terrence Pendergrass Arrested for Inmate's Death
On August 18, 2012, Jason Echevarria, a 25-year-old inmate at Rikers Island, swallowed a chunk of detergent powder. Guards had passed out the soap balls so that the inmates could clean their cells, which had been flooded by a sewage back-up. Echevarria soon began shouting for help. He banged on his cell door, told correction officers that he had eaten the soap ball, and demanded medical attention. A guard informed his captain about the situation and the captain told the guard that he should only call him if he needed help pulling a body out of a cell. A pharmacy technician and another guard also told the captain that Echevarria looked like he was in bad shape. The captain did nothing.
Guards found Echevarria dead the next morning.
On Monday, federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced that the Rikers captain, Terrence Pendergrass, has been arrested and charged with violating Echevarria's rights.
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"Jason Echevarria should not have died," Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. "As alleged, Terrence Pendergrass abused his power as a Rikers Island captain in charge of a vulnerable population of inmates with mental health issues by denying Echevarria access to medical care despite his obvious and urgent medical need for it."
The federal complaint charges that Pendergrass acted with "deliberate indifference to a serious medical need" and "knowingly ignored and instructed others to ignore [Echevarria's] need for medical help."
Echevarria had been staying in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Interacted Inmates following multiple suicide attempts. He swallowed a battery on one try.
On August 18, 2012, toilets in the unit overflowed and flooded the cells of Echevarria and others. So, the complaint states, guards passed out the soap balls, "a powerful disinfectant/detergent combination in powder form" containing ammonium chloride. Prosecutors note that NYC Department of Correction policy states that "inmates are not supposed to be provided with a soap ball unless the soap ball is diluted in multiple gallons of water before use."
At 1:40 p.m. a rookie correction officer gave Echevarria a soap ball that had not been diluted. Three hours later, Echevarria banged on his cell door, screamed for help, and told another guard, Raymond Castro, that he had swallowed the soap ball and needed medical treatment.
Castro then told Pendergrass. According to prosecutors, the captain said in response that Castro "should not call on Pendergrass if there were live inmates in cells. Rather, [the guard] should call on Pendergrass only if [the guard] needed help with an extraction of an inmate from a cell or if there was a dead body."
Later in the day, the guard saw vomit in Echevarria's cell. He again went to Pendergrass. Pendergrass said that the inmate should "hold it."