NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal grand jury indicted a former senior guard at New York City’s main jail complex on a civil rights charge, accusing him of denying medical aid to a mentally ill inmate who had swallowed disinfectant, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.
Correction Officer Terrence Pendergrass was indicted on a single count of deprivation of rights under color of law, a charge with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
Pendergrass was a captain supervising other officers at the Rikers Island jail complex on August 18, 2012, 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.
Echevarria told an officer what he’d done and the officer in turn told Pendergrass, according to the indictment.
“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,” Bharara said in the statement.
A second officer also informed Pendergrass that the inmate needed medical attention but still the captain failed to contact any medical personnel, the prosecutor said.
“The next morning, Echevarria was found dead in his cell,” Bharara said in the statement.
The city’s Department of Correction said Pendergrass, 49, of Queens was demoted and then suspended without pay after the death.
An effort to reach an attorney for Pendergrass was not immediately successful.
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg