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July 28, 2014

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Questions mount as state prison officials refuse to divulge causes in October deaths of four inmates

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Sandra Chereb / AP

Nevada State Prison in Carson Cit, Nev., is seen on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.

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Richard Ferst

Richard Ferst wasn’t perfect.

Even his family called him a career criminal who stole from relatives, fell in and out of jail and contracted hepatitis C while using a dirty needle to feed a decades-long drug addiction.

“We had, obviously, a bit of a falling out,” said Ferst's sister, Shelley Cremshaw. “But when I found out he died in his (prison) cell, my heart just dropped.”

His family was told he died after liver surgery, likely related to the hepatitis. But one month after Ferst’s death Oct. 5, relatives don’t have a definitive cause of death and they now have mounting questions about the care he was getting behind bars. Ferst, 52, was one of four men at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City whose deaths last month drew the attention of civil rights advocates because prison officials have yet to disclose the specifics of how any died.

“If he was found in his cell, and if he was that sick, why didn’t they move him to the infirmary?” asked Ferst’s mother, Sandy Morningstar. “He wasn’t getting the medical treatment he was supposed to be getting, obviously, or he wouldn’t be dead.”

Morningstar said she first grew suspicious after getting conflicting information from prison officials about how Ferst died and where he was found. A prison chaplain told her Ferst died at the prison’s infirmary two weeks after undergoing surgery, but Morningstar later was told through the handling funeral home that her son spent his final moments inside a cell. He did not appear to be under medical care when staff found his lifeless body in Unit 8A, cell 1-E.

“It really throws me,” Morningstar said in her Las Vegas home, where Ferst lived as an adult. “They lied to me about him being inside the infirmary.”

Brian Connett, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Corrections, refused to discuss the circumstances of any of the deaths — including the cause and manner of each — noting officials were advised against disclosing such information by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office.

Jennifer López, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the agency could not release any information about the deaths because inmate medical records are confidential, noting that only basic information would be available to media via press releases.

The other men who died last month are convicted cop killer Larry Peck, 62, who died Oct. 4; Joseph Oxford-McArthur, 31, who was serving a one- to three-year sentence for domestic battery and was found unconscious inside his cell Oct. 21 before dying four days later at an area hospital; and an unidentified inmate who died at a medical facility inside the prison Oct. 21 (his name is not yet public because prison officials have not notified relatives). Officials have ruled out foul play in all of the deaths except for Oxford-McArthur’s.

Ferst had been in custody 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.

The cluster of deaths and lack of information about them raise questions about the handling of inmates at the state-funded prison, said Tod Story, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Nevada chapter.

“We find (the deaths) deeply troubling,” Story said. “I think anytime there’s a series of deaths in one facility, it raises red flags that should concern everyone.”

Between 2001 and 2007, 198 inmates died in Nevada state prisons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of deaths fluctuated between those years, averaging about 28 per year and peaking at 39 in 2007. Nationwide, 21,936 inmates died between those years, peaking at 3,388 deaths in 2007.

Gene Columbus, president of the Nevada Corrections Association, the state association that represents prison guards, said there was nothing alarming about the recent cluster of deaths at the Northern Nevada prison.

“(Death) happens,” Columbus said. “With an elderly population, (clusters of deaths), they happen.”

A 2012 American Civil Liberties Union report found that in 2010, there were 124,900 inmates age 55 or over living inside federal prisons throughout the United States, up from 8,853 in 1981.

Regardless of why Ferst died, staff at NDOC committed at least one clear violation of the agency’s operating procedures, his family says: Staff did not notify relatives about Ferst's surgery in late September.

Employees are required to notify family as soon as an inmate becomes seriously ill or requires surgery, but Morningstar and Cremshaw said they were not told about Ferst’s procedure until after he died two weeks later. The surgery was meant to alleviate pressure inside his enlarged abdomen caused by cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver tissue that was caused by hepatitis C.

“We never discussed that he was going into the infirmary,” Cremshaw said. “We got no update on whether he was getting a procedure.”

Connett said he could not comment on conversations between relatives and staff at the prison.

Liver complications are a common cause of death for inmates in state prisons throughout the United States. According to a 2007 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study that examined deaths between 2001 and 2004, 89 percent of deaths in state prisons are attributed to illness, with liver diseases accounting for 10 percent.

Requests submitted by the Las Vegas Sun for an incident report and other documents related to Ferst’s death were met with an Oct. 23 email from NDOC saying the information was not available because the department’s contracted coroner still had not determined the cause of death.

However, officials at Walton’s Chapel of the Valley in Carson City — the funeral home handling Ferst’s cremation — told Morningstar an autopsy had not been requested by the coroner, who has the authority to request the procedure if deemed necessary.

Relatives are now seeking legal counsel to get answers and documents from NDOC.

"When four people die at a facility in a 30-day period, it warrants an investigation," said the family's attorney, Parviz Heshmati. "That's all it is right now."

Ferst’s mother grows increasingly frustrated and confused as she mourns the death of her imperfect son, who was put behind prison bars most recently for breaking into cars and stealing from them to buy drugs. He doesn't leave a wife or children behind — the only loved ones mourning his death are Morningstar and Cremshaw.

His death hit Morningstar especially hard because her daughter Gidget died of a brain aneurysm three years ago in Virginia. Cremshaw is now Morningstar’s only living child.

Morningstar is left wondering how her only son spent his final days in prison. Did he suffer needlessly?

“I wasn’t proud of him by any means, but I loved him very much,” Morningstar said. “No matter what, he was still my son.”

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