NYC jail guard charged in death of inmate who ate disinfectant

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2014 3:44 PM

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) - A former senior guard at New York City's main jail complex was arrested on Monday on a federal charge that he deprived a mentally ill inmate of medical aid after he swallowed a corrosive disinfectant.

Terrence Pendergrass, 49, was a captain on duty at Rikers Island last August when an inmate in the mental health assessment unit swallowed a so-called "soap ball," according to a criminal complaint.

Unaware that rules require the soap ball to be diluted in water, an inexperienced guard gave it to the inmate, Jason Echevarria, so he could clean up sewage flooding his cell, the complaint said. Instead, Echevarria swallowed the ball, which contained highly caustic ammonium chloride, it said.

Over the course of the evening, the inmate, with skin discolored, was banging on his door, vomiting and screaming for medical assistance, two guards and a pharmacy technician told Pendergrass, the supervisor of the unit, the complaint said.

The pharmacy technician told Pendergrass the inmate could die without help, it said.

Pendergrass's response, according to the complaint, was to tell the guards they should only come to him again if they needed to remove a dead body from the cell.

Even after looking at the vomit-splattered cell, Pendergrass told one of the guards that he did not think the inmate had swallowed a ball and that his cries must have been misheard, the complaint said.

More than six hours after Pendergrass first heard of the inmate's plight, he ended his shift without allowing him medical help, the complaint said. Echevarria was found dead in his cell the next morning, it said.

Pendergrass, who lives in the New York borough of Queens, is charged with one count of "deprivation of rights under color of law," a federal statute that forbids people granted powers by the government to abuse those powers. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

"The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including prison inmates at Rikers," Preet Bharara, the Manhattan U.S. attorney, whose office is prosecuting the case with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in a statement.

A lawyer for Pendergrass, who was demoted after the incident, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday. The city's Department of Correction and the union representing correction captains did not immediately respond to request for comment.

(Reporting By Jonathan Allen; editing by Gunna Dickson)