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Rikers Island Guard Arrested for Ignoring Dying Inmate's Pleas, FBI Says

By Gustavo Solis | March 25, 2014 10:03am
 A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

NEW YORK — A city correction officer was arrested for ignoring cries for help from a Rikers Island inmate who swallowed a ball of soap containing ammonium chloride and later died, officials said.

Terrence Pendergrass, 49, an 18-year veteran with the Department of Correction, was charged with one count of deprivation of rights on Friday. He faces a 10-year maximum sentence, according to the FBI and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's office, which conducted the investigation.

“Sadly, as alleged, Mr. Pendergrass took his authority as a supervisory correction officer to the extreme and violated the rights of an inmate in his charge to the point that it resulted in death,” said George Venizelos, the FBI's assistant director in charge of the New York Field Office.

The inmate, Jason Echevarria, 25, was at Rikers Island on robbery charges in 2012. After multiple suicide attempts, including swallowing a battery, he was placed in a unit for inmates who need mental health treatment, according to the criminal complaint against Pendergrass.

On Aug. 18, 2012, a rookie correction officer gave Echevarria a “soap ball” to clean a sewage backup in his cell. The guard was not aware of the DOC policy that requires the soap balls, which contain dangerous chemicals, to be diluted in water before being given to inmates, according to the complaint.

Shortly after Echevarria swallowed the soap ball, other inmates heard him banging on his cell door, asking for help.

A correction officer told his supervisor, Pendergrass, about the incident, according to the complaint.

Pendergrass told the guard to only call on him if he needed help removing an inmate from a cell or if there was a dead body, according to the Manhattan U.S. Attorney.

A short time later, a second guard and a pharmacy technician tasked with distributing medicine saw vomit inside Echevarria’s cell as he called for help. They also reported it to Pendergrass. Again he ignored the report, saying the inmate should “hold it," prosecutors said.

Under Pendergrass’ watch, none of the correction officers filed a report of the incident. Echevarria, who was spitting blood, never received medical attention.

The next morning, he was dead.

"Jason never should have died," said his family's lawyer, Robert Kelner. "He died in a horrible way."

Pendergrass was demoted from his rank at captain after the incident but continued to get paid his $73,000 annual salary.

The Bronx District Attorney's Office did not prosecute any of the guards involved in Echevarria's death last year. They assisted the Manhattan U.S. Attorney and the FBI with the investigation.

Because state and federal statutes differ regarding the deprivation of rights charge, federal prosecutors may have a stronger case against the guard, officials said.

Echevarria's family declined to comment, Kelner said.

"I spoke with his father earlier today," he said Monday. "He is very gratified [of news of the arrest], the entire family is very gratified.”