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November 27, 2014

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Two months after inmate’s death, prison officials request autopsy

Carson City coroner says case ‘fell through the cracks’

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Cathleen Allison / AP

A corrections officer talks with inmates in the cellhouse at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City.

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Richard Ferst

The state's corrections department has requested an autopsy for a prison inmate whose body went unexamined for more than two months because officials delayed an investigation into his death.

Richard Ferst, 52, was found dead Oct. 5 inside a cell at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. His family was told he likely succumbed to a hepatitis C condition, but for more than two months, the Nevada Department of Corrections didn’t request a postmortem examination or offer definitive answers about Ferst’s death.

Carson City Coroner Ruth Rhines said the autopsy was performed Dec. 24, several days after prison officials requested it. Results won't be available for about three months.

The body should have been examined earlier, Rhines said, citing a new state law that went into effect June 2 requiring prison officials to request autopsies for all inmates who die under prison care. Prisons director Greg Cox, who openly endorsed the new law during the 2013 Legislature, has not responded to inquiries about Ferst’s death via the department's public information office.

Rhines said Ferst's case “fell through the cracks.” The body was transferred directly after death to Walton’s Chapel of the Valley in Carson City, where Ferst was to be cremated at the state’s cost once relatives consented. The family never submitted paperwork to consent to the cremation, and instead they requested his body be kept inside a cold chamber while they considered a private autopsy and reviewed medical records.

Ferst had been in prison since July 2011 and was serving a maximum sentence of 20 years for burglary, grand larceny and possession of stolen property, according to the Department of Corrections. Ferst is one of four inmates who died in October at the Carson City prison; officials have not said whether a death investigation was requested for any of the other men who died.

Autopsies, however, have been requested for inmates who have died since a Sun story in early November revealed that Ferst's relatives and civil rights advocates were frustrated by the prison system's lack of urgency to investigate deaths under its watch.

Casey Landis, an attorney representing Ferst's family, said recently released medical records show the inmate's health rapidly deteriorated in the final weeks of his life — the autopsy might reveal whether he was getting adequate treatment for his ailments.

The autopsy report also could bring closure to Ferst's mother, who wants to scatter her son's ashes into the Pacific Ocean at Newport Beach, Calif., where Ferst grew up. Ferst's family is not in possession of either the body or Ferst's remains, Landis said.

“What concerns me most is that I've got a family who is wanting to go through the grieving process,” Landis said. “I don't think it's fair, and I don't think there's a reason for (the prison system) to delay things to this extent.”

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