A former guard at New York City’s Riker’s Island, faces trial today on a federal charge that he deliberately ignored the medical needs of a mentally ill inmate who died after swallowing a corrosive disinfectant soap
The trial of Terrence Pendergrass, who prosecutors say was the captain on duty when Jason Echevarria, 25, swallowed a soap ball in 2012, comes amid growing calls for reform at Riker’s, 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 Riker’s, 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 ammonia 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.
Authorities say Pendergrass ignored other guards’ warnings that Echevarria was in agonizing pain, vomiting and spitting up blood after ingesting a toxic soap ball. They say Pendergrass peered into Echevarria’s cell in a solitary confinement unit for mentally ill inmates before walking away.
Pendergrass has pleaded not guilty. Echevarria’s father has filed a $20 million lawsuit. Riker’s has come under increased scrutiny for the way mentally ill inmates are treated.
Pendergrass, 50, faces one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.