Lawmakers last session approved legislation designed to ensure autopsies are performed on inmates who die unattended in the prison system.
Groups have maintained the bill mandates an autopsy unless the next of kin says no within 72 hours.
But there have been charges the system is not following through — especially in the case of a Las Vegas inmate discovered in his cell at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.
According to the Las Vegas Sun, the body of inmate Richard Ferst has been in a funeral home in Carson City for two months awaiting an autopsy. His mother says it must be done before she can have him cremated, then scatter his ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
Corrections Director Greg Cox told the Board of Prison Commissioners on Tuesday that his department is working on meeting the terms of the new law and to provide information to the state, families, other inmates and the public. He said that is important in the name of transparency.
But Chief Deputy Attorney General Joe Reynolds said his department’s interpretation is that the bill provides discretion to conduct an autopsy.
“In looking at the history of this bill, our understanding was that it was to provide the Department of Corrections the authority and ability to order an autopsy,” he told the board.
He said the bill was designed to “provide the ability to autopsy but not to mandate it.”
There have been a number of complaints about the seemingly large number of inmate deaths in the past few months. Much of that, however, seems to be a result of the fact the prison system is now reporting inmate deaths, which didn’t occur in most cases in the past.
According to the department, there were fewer inmate deaths in 2013 so far — 31 — than in each of the previous three years.
There were 42 in 2010, 38 in 2011 and 40 in 2012.
Cox said the issue remains under study.