U.S. Attorney's Office
Southern District of New York
(212) 637-2600
December 17, 2014

Rikers Island Correction Officer Found Guilty in Manhattan Federal Court of Deliberately Ignoring Urgent Medical Needs of Inmate Who Died

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that TERRENCE PENDERGRASS, a correction officer and former captain, was found guilty today in federal court of deliberately ignoring the urgent medical needs of a Rikers Island inmate who had ingested a corrosive disinfectant and later died, in violation of the inmate’s rights under the United States Constitution.

U.S. Attorney Bharara stated: “Our efforts to reform Rikers Island continue. Following last week’s conviction of correction officer Austin Romain for taking bribes and smuggling drugs into Rikers Island, today a jury convicted former Rikers Island captain Terrence Pendergrass of a federal civil rights crime. The jury unanimously found that Pendergrass violated Jason Echevarria’s constitutional rights by deliberately ignoring his pleas for help and depriving him of urgent medical care, leaving Echevarria to die alone in his cell. Echevarria should not have died, and the convictions of individual wrongdoers at Rikers Island—as well as the systemic, institution-wide reforms we are pursuing—should help prevent tragedies like Echevarria’s death from occurring again.”

According to the Complaint, Indictment, and evidence presented at trial:

Rikers Island is a jail complex, located in the Bronx, New York, maintained by the New York City Department of Correction. At the time of his death, Jason Echevarria was an inmate incarcerated on Rikers Island in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (known as “MHAUII”), a unit housing inmates who had committed infractions while incarcerated and who were identified as needing mental health treatment.

On the afternoon of August 18, 2012, Echevarria swallowed a powerful disinfectant/detergent combination in powder form, commonly referred to as a “soap ball,” used to clean and disinfect cells. Echevarria had been given the soap ball by a new correction officer for the purpose of cleaning Echevarria’s cell following a sewage backup. The soap ball contained, among other things, ammonium chloride, a corrosive chemical that is life threatening if ingested.

After Echevarria swallowed the soap ball, he began banging on his cell door and asking for help. Echevarria also told a correction officer that he had swallowed a soap ball and needed help. That correction officer in turn informed PENDERGRASS, the captain on duty at that time. As the captain on duty, PENDERGRASS was responsible for arranging for medical treatment for the inmates in his unit. Rather than arrange for that care, however, PENDERGRASS responded that the correction officer should only call on PENDERGRASS if he needed help with the extraction of an inmate from a cell or if there was a dead body. A short time later, the same correction officer told PENDERGRASS that he saw vomit in Echevarria’s cell, and PENDERGRASS responded that Echevarria should be told to “hold it.” Soon after, another correction officer told PENDERGRASS that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball and that a pharmacy technician had told that officer that Echevarria needed a doctor. Despite what he had been told, and despite going to Echevarria’s cell himself after Echevarria had vomited, PENDERGRASS did not call for medical help. He also ordered an officer who was trying to call for help to hang up the phone.

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PENDERGRASS, 50, of Howard Beach, New York, was convicted of one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The maximum potential sentence in this case is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge. Sentencing has been scheduled for April 17, 2015, at 4:00 p.m., before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams.

United States Attorney Bharara praised the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and expressed his appreciation for the assistance of the New York City Department of Correction, Investigation Division, the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, and the New York City Department of Investigation in the investigation of this matter.

This case is being prosecuted jointly by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit and Public Corruption Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lara K. Eshkenazi and Daniel C. Richenthal are in charge of the prosecution.

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