Rikers Island Corrections Officer Stands Trial For Inmate's Death
ARUN RATH, HOST:
While grand juries in Staten Island and Ferguson have refused to indict police officers involved in killing civilians, a New York City corrections officer is facing charges over a 2012 incident when a mentally ill inmate died after swallowing toxic detergent. As Alisa Roth reports, the city faces increased scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners.
ALISA ROTH, BYLINE: Ray Echevarria has spent all week on a hard wooden bench in a Manhattan courtroom listening to people talk about the last hours of his son's life. There was the excruciating belly pain, the vomiting, the chemical burns in his mouth and esophagus and the desperate cries for help. During a break in court, he sits at a coffee shop across the street and explains why he comes.
RAY ECHEVARRIA: I'm here for my son. I'm pretty sure he knows I'm here. He's not here with me, but I'm here. I hope there's justice done for my family. That's all I can say.
ROTH: Echevarria's son Jason was a prisoner at Rikers Island. The New York City jail is one of the largest in the country. Echevarria had a long history of mental illness and was being held on a special unit for mentally inmates who break rules. The medical examiner called his death a homicide.
Terrence Pendergrass was the corrections captain in charge when Echevarria died. Prosecutors say Pendergrass refused to get medical care, allegedly telling guards not to bother him unless there was a dead body. He's since been spending without pay. His trial began this past Monday. If convicted, Pendergrass could spend 10 years in prison.
The senior Echevarria comes to court alone because his other sons are working and the testimony is just too much for his wife. Around a dozen family members and corrections officers are in court to support Pendergrass, but none would talk about the case, and neither would Pendergrass nor his attorney. Patrick Ferraiuolo is head of the union that represents corrections captains in New York. He says Pendergrass feels bad Echevarria died, but that Pendergrass is not guilty.
PATRICK FERRAIUOLO: We don't know who didn't do their job. But I can tell you one thing. Pendergrass did his job.
ROTH: He says being a corrections officer is tough, particularly on the units for inmates with mental illness.
FERRAIUOLO: You have inmates that are attempting suicide. You have inmates that are assaulting staff. You just name it and it's just going on there.
ROTH: Almost 40 percent of New York City's 11,000 inmates have a mental illness, and that percentage has been increasing, even as the overall jail population has dropped. The high percentage of mentally ill prisoners isn't unique to Rikers. Jails and prisons have become the largest inpatient mental health facilities in the country.
Echevarria's death isn't the only one like it at Rikers. At least two other inmates with mental illness have died there recently. Rikers has had other problems lately, too. A U.S. Justice Department report documented a culture of violence against juveniles and an internal city agency report highlighted guard violence against mentally ill inmates.
The unit where Echevarria had been held was shut down after he died. Last week, the Mayor of New York City announced a $130 million plan to keep people with mental illness out of the criminal justice system. None of this is much comfort to Ray Echevarria, who says he used to warn his son to stay out of trouble so he wouldn't end up in jail or dead.
ECHEVARRIA: He would get into all kind of mischief. He wasn't a bad child. I mean, if he was good or bad, he was my son. I loved him.
ROTH: Echevarria has filed a separate lawsuit against the city, Pendergrass and other corrections officers. No trial date has been set yet. For NPR News, I'm Alisa Roth in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.