Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that TERRENCE PENDERGRASS, a former correction officer and captain, was sentenced today in federal court to five years in prison for 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. The sentence was imposed by U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams. PENDERGRASS was convicted of one count of deprivation of rights under color of law in Manhattan federal court on December 17, 2014, after a one-week trial.
U.S. Attorney Bharara said: “Even as we seek to reform and transform Rikers Island –and ensure an environment that protects the constitutional rights of its inmates – it is important that individuals who cruelly trample on those rights be held responsible. Terrence Pendergrass was the Captain on duty, responsible for the well-being of the inmates under his charge, but he stood deaf to Jason Echevarria’s pleas for help as he was succumbing to a toxic chemical, unwilling to help or let others help Echevarria, who died painfully, alone in his cell. Today’s sentence is an important step in our sustained efforts to change the culture on Rikers Island. The sentence is an appropriate punishment for Pendergrass’s crime. Pendergrass now himself will be an inmate and will expect, and be entitled to, better treatment than what he gave Mr. Echevarria.”
According to the Complaint, Indictment, evidence presented at trial, and information presented in connection with sentencing:
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, 51, of Howard Beach, New York, was convicted after trial of one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. In addition to his prison term, PENDERGRASS was sentenced to one year supervised release, and fined $5,000. He was ordered to surrender by August 18, 2015.
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.