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Ex-Rikers supervisor sentenced to 5 years for inmate's death from 'soap ball'

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex in Queens on June 11, 2014. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

A former Rikers Island jail supervisor was sentenced Thursday to 5 years in prison -- more than double the penalty suggested in federal sentencing guidelines -- for ignoring the dying pleas of an inmate in the mental health unit who had swallowed toxic cleaning material.

Former Correction Capt. Terrence Pendergrass, 51, of Howard Beach, Queens, was convicted in December of violating the civil rights of inmate Jason Echevarria, 25, by failing to respond to a serious medical condition. He was also sentenced to 1 year of supervised release after serving his prison term.

"A substantial sentence is needed to reflect the seriousness of this offense," Judge Ronnie Abrams said in imposing the sentence in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Pendergrass apologized to the family of the victim, but the judge said she thought he "showed little remorse."

The judge acknowledged the difficulties faced by correction officers, but added: "One thing would not have been difficult and that would be to let Mr. Echevarria see a doctor."

"You, as a supervisor, had a duty to take prompt action," she said.

The victim's father, Ramon Echevarria, sitting in the front row, declined the judge's offer to address the court. His son, who was awaiting trial on burglary charges, died in August 2012 after swallowing a detergent "soap ball" that he was given to clean up his cell after it was flooded by a sewage backup. He began banging on his cell door and asking for help, the government said.

Prosecutors said Pendergrass also stifled attempts by other officers to get help.

The sentencing comes as the federal government is suing the city to force reforms to reduce officer-on-inmate violence at Rikers, and prosecutors made clear they wanted a "substantial" prison term for Pendergrass to send a message to the staff at the jail.

"The culture of violence and the poor treatment of inmates by correction officers at Rikers Island has been well documented," prosecutors said in a presentencing memo to the judge.

"The defendant was in a position of power in an institution that appears to be plagued by systemic indifference by correction officers to the medical and other needs of prisoners. A significant sentence is thus all the more necessary," the memo said.

Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of 21 to 27 months in prison, and Pendergrass could have gotten up to 10 years in prison.

Pendergrass, a 16-year veteran of the Correction Department, was demoted after the death and was fired after his conviction.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the sentence "an important step in our sustained efforts to change the culture on Rikers Island."

The judge ordered Pendergrass to surrender on Aug. 18.Courts have held that a prisoner has a constitutional right to be treated for a serious medical condition, and Section 242 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code "makes it a crime for a person acting under color of any law to willfully deprive a person of their constitutional rights . . . ," according to the Justice Department website.

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