NYC jail guard faces trial over death of inmate who ate 'soap ball'

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 08, 2014 1:01 AM

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former guard at New York City's Rikers Island faces trial Monday on a federal charge that he deliberately ignored the medical needs of a mentally ill inmate who died after swallowing a corrosive disinfectant.

The trial of Terrence Pendergrass, who prosecutors say was the captain on duty when Jason Echevarria swallowed a so-called soap ball in 2012, comes amid growing calls for reform at Rikers, one of the world's largest jail complexes.

The case was brought by Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has been among those calling for changes at Rikers, which houses some 11,400 inmates on an average day.

Prosecutors said that in August 2012, a new guard who was unaware of rules requiring soap balls to be diluted in water gave one to Echevarria to clean up sewage flooding his cell.

Echevarria swallowed the ball, which contained highly caustic ammonium chloride, charging documents said. Other inmates heard him banging on his cell door, vomiting and screaming for medical help, the documents said.

Pendergrass was told about the situation by two guards, one of whom had learned from a pharmacy technician that Echevarria could die without help, authorities said.

But Pendergrass failed to arrange for medical care for Echevarria, who was found dead the next morning, charging documents said.

Pendergrass, 50, faces one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Pendergrass has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Sam Braverman, declined comment.

Echevarria's father, Ramon, has sued the city for $40 million over the death.

"It is extremely obvious that he should have been afforded medical care," Ramon Echevarria's lawyer, Robert Kelner, said Friday.

The city denies the allegations.

As scrutiny of Rikers increased, the Department of Corrections announced in October that its chief, William Clemons, would step down.

The decision came after Bharara's office in August said it had found a pattern of abuse of 16- and 17-year-old inmates caused by excessive force by guards and violence by others being held there.

Bharara has said he could sue the city if it does not reform the system.

The New York City comptroller released a report in October finding violence at Rikers had increased over the past seven years, even as spending climbed and the inmate population declined.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Lisa Von Ahn)