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Claims of Racism and Brutality Dog Los Angeles County Sheriff ‘Deputy Gangs’

A lawsuit brought by a Compton resident detailing an alleged beating by deputies is just one of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits alleging brutality and racial bias at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in riot gear stand guard in front of an apartment complex as police force protesters down a street near a Trump campaign rally in May 2016 in Anaheim, California.
Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Claims of Racism and Brutality Dog Los Angeles County Sheriff ‘Deputy Gangs’

A lawsuit brought by a Compton resident detailing an alleged beating by deputies is just one of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits alleging brutality and racial bias at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.


On Jan. 15, 2016, Sheldon Lockett was standing outside his godmother’s house in Compton, California, when he said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Samuel Aldama and his partner Mizrain Orrego jumped out of their squad car, guns drawn. Lockett became frightened and ran. Aldama and Orrego announced on the radio that Lockett was armed, then they chased and cornered him in a nearby backyard. When he attempted to surrender, the two deputies savagely beat him while yelling the N-word, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in July against the County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), Aldama, and Orrego.

Even though they found no weapon and Lockett hadn’t committed any crime, Aldama and Orrego arrested him and charged him with attempted murder. Because he couldn’t afford bail, Lockett was locked up in the county jail for eight months before the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office finally dropped all charges against him. Lockett’s mother filed a complaint against Aldama and Orrego with the LASD, but the department declined to investigate and took no disciplinary action against the officers, according to the lawsuit. Instead, one month later, deputies broke down Lockett’s mother’s door and ransacked her home, searching for the non-existent gun they claimed Lockett had pointed at the officers.

A review by The Appeal of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits involving deputies who have been previously named in brutality lawsuits with Aldama suggest that these alleged incidents of violence are not isolated. Plaintiffs in these lawsuits claim that LASD deputies regularly target people with mental illnesses and disabilities for violence, beat Los Angeles residents and prisoners alike, and punish those who file abuse complaints. Critics of the department say such violence is being driven, in part, by the department’s white supremacist gang culture that encourages excessive force, particularly against minorities.

It is a law enforcement culture that, ironically, apparently mirrors the very people they target for arrest in anti-gang operations: Deputies in these gangs sport tattoos signifying the number of people they have killed, flash gang signs, and tag buildings with graffiti to mark their territory. In June 2016, a tattoo artist secretly traveled to Aldama’s home to give him a tattoo with a skull, rifle, flames, and military-style helmet emblazoned with the letters “C P T” for Compton, his department’s station house, Aldama later admitted under oath. He said 10 to 20 of his colleagues had the same tattoo. Critics cited the tattoo as proof that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has not escaped its long-standing history of white supremacist gang culture.

In a deposition in May, Lockett’s attorney, John Sweeney, asked Aldama, “Do you have any ill feelings towards African Americans in general?” Aldama asked Sweeney to repeat the question several times, before answering, “I do, sir.” He later claimed have misunderstood the question and denied having ill feelings toward Black people.

Before joining the Compton station, Aldama worked as a guard in the 3000 module of the county’s Men’s Central Jail, which was home to a notoriously violent deputy gang known as the 3000 Boys. According to a 2012 federal lawsuit, Aldama was allegedly part of an assault on a prisoner and the subsequent coverup. The lawsuit said Aldama pinned the man to the ground while other deputies beat, tased, and pepper-sprayed him, leaving him with chemical burns and abrasions on his back.

Two months after Aldama got the tattoo, he and Orrego were on patrol, half a mile west of Lockett’s home, when they encountered Donta Taylor, a 31-year-old Black man, walking along the street. It’s unclear exactly what happened next. The deputies later claimed that Taylor drew a pistol and ran after they asked him if he was on probation or parole, but no gun was ever found and no witnesses corroborated the deputies’ claims. What is undisputed is that minutes later, Aldama and Orrego killed Taylor, shooting him six times after a brief foot chase. A review of the fatal shooting by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey in 2017 concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Aldama and Orrego did not act in self-defense and the defense of others when they fired their service weapons at others.”

(On Sept. 20, Aldama filed a response to the complaint in which he denied its allegations. Aldama’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office referred The Appeal to a July 26 statement on “alleged subgroup cultures” in the department stating in part that “At the end of the day, everyone, most importantly our public, should be confident that there are no ‘gangs’ of deputies operating subversively anywhere within the Department.”)

Abusing prisoners with disabilities or mental illnesses

The LASD patrols nearly 4,000 square miles and maintains a jail system that houses approximately 17,000 inmates making it the largest jail system in the world. But for decades, the department has been accused by advocates and public officials of routinely failing to meet the needs of and mistreating prisoners with disabilities and mental illnesses. In 2008, civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the department, based on interviews with 70 prisoners. The lawsuit included stories of guards taking away disabled prisoners’ catheter bags as well as prisoners who were forced drag themselves on filthy restroom floors because there was no accessible entrance for their wheelchairs. In 2011, Joshua Sather, a rookie deputy, claimed that a supervisor ordered him to beat up a mentally ill prisoner. Sheriff’s officials investigated the incident, determining that that no misconduct took place. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on how mentally ill prisoners, who then accounted for 15 percent of the jail’s population, bore the brunt of roughly a third of deputies’ use of force incidents.

The Appeal has identified numerous lawsuits since then with similar allegations regarding abuse of prisoners with mental illness or physical disability by LASD deputies. The allegations include officers denying prisoners medicine and allowing them to be beaten by other prisoners.

In 2013, Daniel Cohen was arrested by LASD deputies and denied access to his glasses and contacts without which he was legally blind, according to his suit. At his jail facility, he alleged, guards soon became hostile toward Cohen for his what they perceived to be his noncompliance with their visual cues. In his cell, Cohen alleges, another prisoner attacked him. But when he called for help, he said, two guards laughed as he was being struck in the face and eyes repeatedly. “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt,” one allegedly said while watching. After the beating, Cohen was taken to medical staff and later returned to the jail’s disciplinary unit, where guards placed him in solitary confinement.

In 2014, S.A. Thomas, a mentally ill man, was arrested and taken to LA County Jail. During his month-long stint there, according to his lawsuit, Thomas requested psychotropic drugs each day, and informed jail staff that he was mentally ill. He alleged that he was denied medication daily, causing him to suffer hallucinations and live in a state of fear. Even on a day that he was scheduled to be in court, he claimed, he was not given medication, rendering him less able to competently testify in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department.

Now, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors is leading a coalition to pass the “Reform L.A. Jails” ballot initiative, which would give the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power to investigate allegations of law enforcement misconduct and redirect resources toward increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Abuse caused permanent injury and came with racial slurs

Since the early 1990s, there have been numerous oversight reports from independent monitors and advocacy groups on prisoner abuse and deputy-on-prisoner violence in LA County jails. In 2012, ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit in federal court against then-LA County Sheriff Lee Baca alleging that deputies in his jails regularly used excessive force against prisoners who were not resisting, and sometimes already unconscious, and it was facilitated by a violent, racist deputy gang culture that included the 3000 Boys and the 2000 Boys in the Men’s Central Jail. The lawsuit, Rosas v. Baca, details several accounts of deputy-on-prisoner violence during which deputies shouted racial slurs against Black people, including the N-word and “monkey.” Plaintiffs alleged that guards used force such as “slamming the inmates’ heads into walls, punching them in the face with their fists, kicking them with their boots, and shooting them multiple times with their tasers.” Injuries from beatings included fractured eye sockets and blindness, broken legs, shattered jaws, collapsed lungs, and nerve damage.

In July 2009, more than six LASD officers, three of whom were members of the 3000 Boys, shouted racial slurs while beating Evans Tutt in Men’s Central Jail. Tutt sustained multiple injuries from the beating including a broken nose, a chipped tooth, and injuries to his ribs, head, face, knee, and leg.  

In 2014, the department reached a settlement with the ACLU, agreeing to create an independent panel to monitor the department’s compliance with an “action plan” to reduce violence in LA County jails. The plan required the department to implement a new use of force policy that prohibited corporal punishment and required that deputies use “the minimal amount of force that is necessary and objectively reasonable to overcome the resistance.”

History of deputy gangs in the department

The history of violent LASD deputy gangs extends stretches back nearly five decades. According to a 1999 article in the Los Angeles Times, the first gang, the “Little Devils,” was founded in 1971 in the East Los Angeles deputy station. Over the next two decades, the popularity of the gangs surged, especially among white deputies working in predominantly Black or Latinx neighborhoods.

Reports of systematic violence by these groups first came to light in 1990, when federal lawsuits alleged that two gangs with the LASD—the Wayside Whites and the Lynwood Vikings—were carrying out racist attacks on people in department custody. The Wayside Whites, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by a former inmate at a jail called Wayside Honor Rancho (now the Pitchess Detention Center), formed a “Ku Klux Klan-type organization” that carried out attacks on Black prisoners. After a six-month investigation, the department declared the allegations “unfounded” but agreed to pay a $40,000 settlement to the prisoners.

The same year, a class-action lawsuit by more than 100 residents of Lynwood, a predominantly Black and Latinx city south of Los Angeles, alleged that the Lynwood Vikings used excessive force, including “interrogation with stun guns, beating victims into unconsciousness, holding a gun in a victim’s mouth and pulling the trigger on an empty chamber, pushing a victim’s head through a squad car window,” conducted illegal searches and seizures, and racially discriminated against residents.

In 1991, a federal judge ruled in the residents’ favor, describing the Lynwood Vikings as “a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” that engaged in “terrorist-type tactics” with the knowledge and tacit support of departmental leadership. After appealing the judge’s ruling, the department ultimately settled the case in 1996 for $7.5 million and agreed to establish a database to hold deputies accountable. The settlement also required the department to spend $1.5 million to improve use of force trainings for deputies.

While the suit wound its way through the courts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hired a former federal judge to carry out an independent investigation of reports of violence and racial discrimination by LASD deputies. The judge’s report, released in 1992, corroborated many of the claims against them, finding that a group of deputies in the Lynwood station repeatedly engaged in “gang-like” behavior, including tagging buildings with graffiti, abusing people in police custody and intimidating supervisors who attempted to rein in their behavior.

According to the report, deputies associated with the gang “challenged all authority, and harassed and intimidated any sergeants or lieutenants who stood in their way; going so far, we have been told, as to command field sergeants to leave the scene of arrests, to slash the tires of supervisors they did not like, to disregard orders not to roam freely outside their patrol areas into the city of Los Angeles and to smear excrement and other noxious substances over the engines of supervisors’ cars.”

In response to these allegations, the LASD reorganized the Lynwood station and 16 deputies were transferred. But no one was fired and reports of violence by deputy gangs continued. In fact, some former Vikings quickly rose up the departmental ranks. Most notably, Paul Tanaka, who joined the Vikings in 1987, was promoted to lieutenant in 1991 and in 2011 became the second-in-command of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. In 1988, Tanaka was one of four deputies who shot and killed an unarmed man in Long Beach.

Deputy gangs entered the spotlight again in late 2010, after the 3000 Boys started a brawl with other deputies at a Christmas party for LA County jail employees. Six deputies were fired for their roles in the brawl, but then-Sheriff Baca blamed the incident on “the drunkenness of a few bad apples” and declined to investigate further. Separate investigations by the ACLU, the FBI, and an independent commission appointed by the county Board of Supervisors all found that the 3000 Boys and other deputy gangs operating in the county jails were responsible for dozens of incidents of violence against prisoners.

Instead of disciplining those involved in these incidents, departmental leadership participated in covering up the violence, according to FBI investigators. Victims were regularly charged with assault to neutralize any civil lawsuits they might later file against their attackers, and supervisors undermined investigations by allowing the deputies accused of violence to be in the room while investigators interviewed their accusers.

Thomas Parker, a retired FBI agent who investigated jail violence in 2011 on behalf of the ACLU concluded that there were “systematic institutional actions to cover up” deputy-on-prisoner violence in the jails, resulting in “severe injuries, maiming, and death, some caused by fellow inmates, but most often at the hands of, or with the acquiescence or assistance of, the deputy sheriffs who are their keepers.”

“I have never experienced any facility exhibiting the volume and repetitive patterns of  violence, misfeasance, and malfeasance impacting the Los Angeles County Jail system,” Parker said.

In 2013, the LASD terminated seven members of the Jump Out Boys, a deputy gang that allegedly celebrated aggressive policing and even shootings. Indeed, one of the gang’s codes was that members were to gain respect after being involved in a shooting. One member of the group complained, anonymously, to a Los Angeles Times reporter that he was unfairly targeted by the department. “Boy Scouts have patches and they have mission statements, and so do we,” he said, while admitting “what we do is commend and honor the shootings.”

Accountability finally came to the LASD in 2015, when former Sheriff Baca, his second-in-command (and former Vikings member) Tanaka and more than a dozen other employees in the department were indicted on federal charges for their roles in covering up violence against inmates in LA County jails. Baca and Tanaka were both convicted in United States District Court on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges and received three-year and five-year prison sentences, respectively. Baca is appealing his conviction; in November, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear his case.

The current sheriff, Jim McDonnell, vowed to implement reforms, but reports of use of force incidents in the LA County jails have nearly tripled since he took office. After news of Aldama’s deposition became public in July, McDonnell announced that the department had begun an internal investigation into the possible existence of new deputy gangs in 2017, but he declined to make the results public.

Sheldon Lockett’s lawsuit against McDonnell, the LASD, and Aldama over his 2016 arrest, meanwhile, is proceeding in federal court. The case was assigned to a new judge in mid-September; in October, a hearing will determine whether the LASD has to disclose the identities of the other deputies in the Compton station who share Aldama’s tattoo.

Parents Fight For Daughter After ‘Pervasive and Egregious’ Violations By Family Court Volunteers

Washington case raises questions about the role of court appointed special advocates.

Illustration by Daiana Ruiz

Parents Fight For Daughter After ‘Pervasive and Egregious’ Violations By Family Court Volunteers

Washington case raises questions about the role of court appointed special advocates.


Denise Estabrook, a retired nurse, signed up to be a court appointed special advocate (CASA) in 2012 as a logical next step in a life of volunteerism. She had gone on a medical mission to Guatemala; she had supported an African child through a church; and at home in Snohomish County, Washington, she decided to volunteer in the child welfare system. Her role would be to monitor a child’s life in foster care, and to file reports and testify to the court on what was in the best interests of the child.

The next year, she was assigned to Apple (not her real name), a newborn baby who had been removed from her parents because, according to court documents, she was “at risk for neglect.” Apple, who is Black, had just been placed with a white foster family when Estabrook, who is also white, was assigned to the case. A social worker later testified that Estabrook assured the foster mother, who had been looking for a child who was at low risk for being returned to their birth parents, that she had nothing to worry about when she took in the baby girl in 2013. Estabrook told her that the birth parents had lost children to social services before, that they had a history of failing to complete the services required to get their kids back, and that they wouldn’t do what was necessary to get Apple back.

But Estabrook also actively helped prevent Apple from being returned to her parents, their lawyers now allege. Over the next two years, a Superior Court judge later documented, Estabrook and other people in the program fed the foster mother confidential information about Apple’s biological parents and actively tried to limit their visits.

In doing so, the lawyers say, Estabrook went beyond her role as a court advocate and sabotaged the family’s chances of reuniting. But it wasn’t just Estabrook. Because of what the judge called “pervasive and egregious” violations in the program, the case is now pending before Washington’s Court of Appeals, which is considering a reversal of the termination of Apple’s parents’ rights.

Regardless of the outcome in Apple’s case, her story brings to light just how much influence a volunteer can have in deciding the direction of a vulnerable child’s life.

An ‘untouchable role’

The CASA program began in 1977 in the next county over from Snohomish—King County, home of Seattle. A judge there felt he didn’t have enough information to make good decisions in child dependency cases, and enlisted the help of volunteers. The program has since exploded, with more than 85,000 volunteers working in programs connected to CASA across the country, although the role of CASAs, also called volunteer guardian ad litems or VGALs, can be drastically different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The program’s racial demographics also vary somewhat, but CASAs are overwhelmingly white and middle class, in stark contrast to the children they serve, who are overwhelmingly from working-class or poor backgrounds and are disproportionately children of color. This disconnect can lead to questionable decisions made on behalf of children, argues Tara Urs, a family court attorney in King County, in a 2015 CUNY Law Review article she co-authored, “However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs.”

The article argues that the role of CASA volunteers as trusted and unbiased advisers to the court gives them outsize power over families’ futures. “CASA programs have carved out a unique and in some ways untouchable role in child welfare decision-making nationwide,” the article explains.

Critics say that’s what may have happened in Snohomish County. In a 2016 ruling on a post-trial motion, Superior Court Judge Anita Farris said Estabrook used her personal email address to send the foster mother unredacted police reports detailing prior bad behavior by the parents, as well as information on Apple’s siblings, including their full names and the names of those who adopted them.

Rather than facilitate visits between Apple and her biological parents, the judge said, Estabrook and the foster mother seemed determined to make them more difficult. According to court documents from Apple’s parents’ termination trial, Estabrook helped Apple’s foster mother craft an extremely restrictive list of foods that the biological parents were made to follow if they were to be allowed to visit with Apple. She wasn’t allowed to eat “hundreds of healthy foods,” the judge noted, including eggs and most starches. The list was explained as medically necessary, although no doctor had seen or approved it and Apple was later found later to have no allergies to the foods on the list. She did, however, have a potential allergy to cashews, a food that wasn’t on the list. According to testimony by the CASA program coordinator, Estabrook also attempted to attend Apple’s mother’s parenting class, a confidential group meeting, and was asked by two different program coordinators to leave.

To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement. I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.Anita Farris, Superior Court Judge

Estabrook died in 2015, yet the problems continued. In a ruling the following year, Farris found that the supervisor who took over the case from Estabrook hid evidence regarding the allergy test results and unauthorized communications between the CASA and the foster mother from the parents’ attorneys, and lied repeatedly on the stand. After Apple’s mother’s attorney filed a complaint against the CASA supervisor, the judge found, the program retaliated by complaining about the attorney’s firm to the Office of Public Defense. And one program coordinator attempted to surreptitiously record the attorneys’ private conversations in the courtroom, the judge said.

“To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement,” Farris said, during her original 2015 ruling. “I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.”

Apple’s mother had fought for her, attending parenting classes and scheduled visits with the child. But Apple’s mother had allegedly been abused by Apple’s father and Farris wasn’t convinced that he was keeping his distance. Based on that concern, she found that their parental rights were properly terminated, but lambasted the CASAs involved. Not only did they break the rules, she said, but they “created an appeal issue that will render any verdict less securely permanent for this child.”

The case is in appeals court, with Apple’s parents seeking to reverse the termination ruling. Still, it has been five years since they lost custody of her—the entirety of the girl’s life. Her parents’ attorneys argue that the termination would not have gone through if Estabrook wasn’t working against their clients from the outset.

A social worker who worked in Snohomish County at the time of Apple’s case, who asked not to be named for fear of affecting the worker’s current cases, said the CASA program was impeded by its homogenous makeup, where the volunteers’ instincts and opinions, which were heavily influenced by their own backgrounds, often went unquestioned. “The [volunteers] came with a set of values and beliefs around families and family roles that were sometimes rigid and certainly weren’t as diverse as the clients we were servicing and sometimes were conservative and damaging,” the social worker said. “A lot of support was given to foster parents, and it didn’t seem there was that same level of support to the birth parents.”

Ida Keeley, the Snohomish County CASA program manager who came on to direct the program a year ago, said the court administration made an internal decision to review and assess the program after Judge Farris’s rulings. The assessment resulted in “changes to the organizational structure, additional policies and procedures, and increased training both for staff and volunteers,” Keeley said in an email. “There is also ongoing recruitment in our communities of color and underrepresented communities in order to have a volunteer base that represents the children in care.”

A child’s ‘best interests’

The Snohomish County CASA program is just half an hour from the headquarters of the National CASA Organization, but despite the high-profile comments by Judge Farris, the national organization issued no public statement and took no action against the county’s program.

When the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose.Tara Urs, family court attorney

Susan Stoltzfus, communications director for the National CASA program, said in an email that the national organization supports the local programs through training, volunteer recruitment materials, and technical assistance. Another communications officer noted that the demographics of CASA volunteers (who are 79 percent white and 72 percent age 40 or over) “align, for the most part, with U.S. trends in volunteerism” and that the program is working to diversify its pool of participants. And although Stoltzfus said member chapters “must adhere to certain standards and requirements to maintain affiliation,” she did not respond to repeated requests for information on the specific standards and compliance policies in place.

“We don’t manage or direct the local program activities,” Stoltzfus said in her email. “That all happens at the local level. If the program is a nonprofit, they have their own board of directors. If the program is publicly administered, then the government (usually a county) provides the oversight.”

In many jurisdictions, CASAs are considered parties to the child welfare case—even in states where the child herself is not considered a party. Typically, in order to be a party in a case, one has to have a sufficient connection to the proceedings to demonstrate a stake in the outcome. CASAs are an exception to this, explained Urs, the co-author of the law review article, and their perceived neutrality can lead a judge to give more weight to a CASA’s point of view. When a parent’s lawyer speaks, for example, the judge hears the argument while understanding that the law requires that attorney to zealously represent their client. “But when the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose,” Urs said.

The issue is compounded in states where children aren’t always entitled to attorneys in dependency proceedings. In Washington, only children ages 12 and up, or children whose parents’ rights have been terminated for six months and who still haven’t been adopted are given attorneys. Otherwise, the volunteer CASA is assigned to represent the child’s “best interests,” but that can be different from what the child wants. If those interests diverge, the CASA is the one who issues reports and often takes the stand on behalf of the child; in places where children don’t get attorneys, that may mean their wishes aren’t taken into account at all. CASAs are not bound by attorney-client privilege, and are considered agents of the court. In some places, like Snohomish County, the program is run out of the court itself.

Lawyers and social workers told The Appeal they must consider a CASA’s feelings and impressions, while navigating already complex and high-stakes situations. “As a parent’s attorney, it’s hard to advise your client about what to do with a CASA,” Urs said. “It’s really helpful to get the CASA on your side, but they’re not trained social workers.”

A 2004 study conducted on behalf of the national CASA organization found other issues as well. Researchers found that CASA volunteers spent less time on cases involving Black children than those involving white children, and that the average time spent on each case is around three hours a month. It also found that children assigned CASA volunteers were less likely to be reunified with their parents. A small follow-up study by a Snohomish County CASA volunteer, published in 2014 as a capstone project for a master’s thesis, found children assigned a CASA were more likely to be placed outside the home.

The former Snohomish County social worker said she has noticed that trend. “On more than one occasion, the barrier I had to returning a child home was the CASA,” the social worker said. “Some see their role as facilitating adoption, and that cannot be the role. If that’s your concern—saving the child from their birth parents—if that’s where you’re coming from, you should not be a CASA.”

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House of Cards

‘Cold case’ playing cards were just introduced into Delaware prisons in hopes of producing tips on unsolved homicides—but critics warn that informants cultivated behind bars can be dangerously unreliable.

"Cold case" playing cards distributed in the Delaware Department of Corrections.
Video still via 47 ABC/Illustration by Anagraph

House of Cards

‘Cold case’ playing cards were just introduced into Delaware prisons in hopes of producing tips on unsolved homicides—but critics warn that informants cultivated behind bars can be dangerously unreliable.


In August, the Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) introduced “cold case” playing cards into the state’s four prisons in hopes of cultivating information about unsolved homicides. Each card features a victim’s photograph, brief details of the crime, and the number for an anonymous tip line for incarcerated people to call. The cards are modeled after the “Most Wanted” deck of cards created by the Pentagon in the spring of 2003 which were emblazoned with the identities of 52 Iraqi regime leaders that troops were meant to pursue, kill, or capture. They are distributed in prisons and jails in at least 17 states including Connecticut, where officials say that they have led to several arrests.

Delaware DOC spokesperson Jayme Gravell said the cards were introduced because prisoners may have either heard or were told about an unsolved homicide in prison, or perhaps they even witnessed a crime before being incarcerated. After looking at the faces of the victims on the cold case cards, she said, they can call in to the tip line with information.

But jailhouse informant testimony is notoriously unreliable. Law professor Samuel Gross, a founder of the National Registry of Exonerations, has estimated that nearly 50 percent of wrongful murder convictions involved perjury by someone such as a “jailhouse snitch or another witness who stood to gain from the false testimony.”  Lauren Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, cautions:  “You need to be very careful about incentives; I think everyone should think about that [false testimony] when utilizing these cards.”

Critics argue that the cards perpetuate a culture of prisoners informing on one another which will inevitably lead to even more incarceration. “They’re asking prisoners to participate in their own incarceration and to basically help find other prisoners to keep inside of prisons for a very, very long time,” said Kim Wilson, a prison abolitionist who has two sons incarcerated at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware, “You’re asking prisoners to police each other, to turn each other in and it basically makes everyone a suspect. … It just seems like a bad idea from beginning  to end.”

They also note that the cards come at a cost—$1.50 per deck at the commissary—to a population already struggling with high costs of basic needs like telephone calls (a 15-minute call costs 60 cents while inmates make as little as 25 cents per hour). “That the playing cards are one more thing to be purchased inside is a cruel irony,” said Dan Berger, an associate professor at the University of Washington and an author of Rethinking the American Prison Movement. “One would think if such efforts were premised on securing long-delayed justice that they would be freely available. To ask prisoners to pay a fee in order to snitch on each other is a fitting, tragic irony of how prisons make use of predatory capitalism.” The Delaware DOC sells roughly 8,000 packs of cards each year, according to Gravell.

The cards are arriving in Delaware prisons just over a year and a half after incarcerated people in the state issued a list of demands that included better treatment, improved food, and access to rehabilitative and educational programs in the wake of an uprising at Vaughn that lasted more than 18 hours and claimed the life of a corrections officer. Gravell said there are now more programs and food options; security cameras have also been installed, and an inmate advisory council has been established. Wilson, however, countered that there has not been an increase in the requested education and rehabilitation programs. Instead, she said, prison officials have focused on technological upgrades such as video cameras and reading tablets. Wilson adds that as the Delaware DOC asks incarcerated people to purchase the cards and help solve cold cases, the state is considering sending hundreds of prisoners out of state because of staffing shortages. Governor John Carney’s administration will make the decision on the transfer within the next six weeks, Gravell said.

In Connecticut prisons, police have received tips from roughly 770 people—mostly prisoners—since its DOC started selling the cards in November 2010, Mike Sullivan, chief inspector of the state’s Cold Case Bureau, told The Appeal. Of those, Sullivan says there have been about 100 in which he “can tell they’re telling the truth.” Sullivan also emphasized that while prosecutors do not rely solely on jailhouse informant testimony to support their cases, prisoners will be expected to testify if they want to receive rewards for their information.

Some victims’ advocates and even an expert on unsolved homicides praise the cards for their promise of bringing justice to cold cases. “It’s self-funding, it doesn’t require a whole lot of resources, you’re not burning valuable time of detectives working really old cases so if it does generate tips it’s a very wise use of very minimal resources,” said Thomas Hargrove, who is the founder of the Murder Accountability Project, an organization that uses data to help document unsolved homicides. “I really don’t see a downside to this.”

But problems with jailhouse informants plague prosecutions across the country, including Orange County, California (where more than 140 cases may be tainted by the sheriff’s illegal use of inmate informants and withholding evidence gleaned from them) and New Orleans (where a death sentence was overturned in part because the district attorney’s office did not disclose its deal with a prolific jailhouse snitch). “I think you have to be skeptical of somebody [calling in tips],” said Jonathan Sills, a Connecticut defense attorney. “Somebody could certainly see the card, could maybe know something about the incident—but not everything—and then stretch the truth a little. Certainly you can have people who could just outright fabricate information about a particular incident. And if they had this information beforehand, why are they only calling it in after being incarcerated?”

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