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Press Release

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Indictment Of Rikers Island Correction Officer For Civil Rights Offense That Led To The Death Of An Inmate

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York

Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that a federal grand jury returned an Indictment against TERRENCE PENDERGRASS, a correction officer and former captain, on a civil rights charge arising out of his 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. PENDERGRASS was arrested on March 24, 2014, on a Complaint alleging the same charge.

According to the allegations contained in the Complaint and the Indictment:

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, a unit housing inmates who have committed infractions while incarcerated and who have been 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,” sometimes provided to inmates to assist in the cleaning and disinfecting of cells. The soap ball contained, among other things, ammonium chloride, a corrosive chemical that is life threatening if ingested.

After Echevarria swallowed the soap ball, Echevarria told a correction officer what had occurred and that he needed medical attention. That correction officer in turn informed PENDERGRASS, the captain – a supervisory correction officer – on duty at that time. 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 second correction officer similarly informed PENDERGRASS that Echevarria needed medical help. Notwithstanding these reports, PENDERGRASS failed to contact any medical personnel about Echevarria’s condition. The next morning, Echevarria was found dead in his cell.

PENDERGRASS, 49, of Howard Beach, New York, is charged in the Indictment with one count of deprivation of rights under color of law. He faces a maximum sentence of ten 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.

PENDERGRASS is scheduled to appear before District Judge Ronnie Abrams, to whom the Indictment has been assigned, on May 29, 2014, at 3:00 p.m.

The case is being handled 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.

The charge contained in the Indictment is merely an accusation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Updated May 13, 2015

Press Release Number: 14-151