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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?”