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.”
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At around 5:30 p.m., a pharmacy technician walking through the unit to pass out medication saw that Echevarria’s face was discolored and heard from another inmate that Echevarria had eaten the soap ball. The pharmacy technician told a guard that Echevarria could die if he was not treated. This guard informed Pendergrass and Pendergrass told him to write up a report. Surveillance footage showed that Pendergrass then went to Echevarria’s cell and looked through the window “for several seconds.”
When Pendergrass clocked-out at 11 p.m., Echevarria had not received any medical attention. The guard’s report was never filed, according to the complaint.
Around 8:30 the next morning, correction officers found Echevarria dead in his cell. There was blood around his mouth. The NYPD initially called the death a suicide, but the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled it a homicide because of the “denial of medical care.” The examiner determined that he had died from “injuries caused by the ingestion of a caustic substance.” He suffered internal chemical burns and scarring along his esophagus and his trachea.
The Bronx District Attorney’s office declined to file charges in the case. Castro, meanwhile, was fired in July 2013 and Pendergrass was demoted from captain. In his wrongful termination suit, Castro stated that the captain gave him a “direct order” to not contact a medic.
“Sadly, as alleged, Mr. Pendergrass took his authority as a supervisory correction officer to the extreme,” George Venizelos, who oversees the FBI’s New York field office, said in a statement.
Prosecutors charged Pendergrass with one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. Pendergrass, who is 49 and an 18 year NYC corrections veteran, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Echevarria’s family has also filed a civil lawsuit against the city’s corrections department
Next: the text of the complaint.