Terrence Pendergrass, 49, was a captain on duty at Rikers Island
in August 2012 when an inmate in the mental health assessment unit
swallowed a so-called "soap ball," according to a criminal
Unaware that rules require the soap ball to be diluted in water, an
inexperienced guard gave it to the inmate, Jason Echevarria, so he
could clean up sewage flooding his cell, the complaint said.
Instead, Echevarria swallowed the ball, which contained highly
caustic ammonium chloride, it said.
Over the course of the evening, the inmate, skin discolored, was
banging on his door, vomiting and screaming for medical assistance,
two guards told Pendergrass, the supervisor of the unit, according
to the complaint.
A pharmacy technician told one of the guards that the inmate could
die without help, it said.
Pendergrass's response, according to the complaint, was to tell the
guards they should only come to him again if they needed to remove a
dead body from the cell.
Pendergrass's union said on Monday that the allegations were false,
and that he intended to plead not guilty to a charge of violating
the inmate's civil rights.
The complaint said that, even after looking through the inmate's
cell window, Pendergrass told one of the guards that he did not
think the inmate had swallowed a ball and that his cries must have
More than six hours after Pendergrass first heard of the inmate's
plight, he ended his shift without allowing him medical help, the
complaint said. Echevarria was found dead in his cell the next
morning, it said.
COULD FACE PRISON TERM
Pendergrass, who lives in the New York borough of Queens, is charged
with one count of "deprivation of rights under color of law," a
federal statute that forbids people granted powers by the government
to abuse those powers. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in
"The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including
prison inmates at Rikers," Preet Bharara, the Manhattan U.S.
attorney, whose office is prosecuting the case with the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, said in a statement.
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Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains'
Association, said the allegations were a fabrication. Pendergrass
was never told of any medical issue, he said, and the inmate
appeared to be well when he checked in with him.
"We believe that he really was railroaded in this," Ferraiuolo said,
adding that he believed the guards under Pendergrass were lying to
If Pendergrass really had refused to recognized a medical emergency,
there were other jail officials who could authorize treatment, he
said, including the captain who took over after Pendergrass's shift
ended at 11 p.m.
A lawyer for Pendergrass, who has worked as a correction officer for
18 years and was on a year-long probation period at the time of the
incident after being newly promoted to captain, did not immediately
respond to requests for comment on Monday.
The city's Department of Correction said Pendergrass was demoted
after the death, was charged with violating department policy last
month, and was suspended without pay on Monday.
"The unnatural death of any inmate in DOC custody is unacceptable,"
the department said in a statement. "We are deeply saddened by Jason
Echevarria's tragic passing in August 2012 and have fully cooperated
with the U.S. Attorney's Office, as we did with the Bronx District
Attorney's earlier investigation."
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Gunna Dickson)
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