Oklahoma is replacing the decks of playing cards they sell in the prison canteens with new custom decks featuring the faces of victims from 52 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases. Other states have similar programs and the program is working.
During the Iraq war, a surprisingly effective tool for the military was a deck of cards distributed to troops featuring the faces of Iraq’s most wanted. Now, law enforcement officials are hoping inmates in American prisons will help play a similar role in unsolved cases.
When inmates at Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City finish their day jobs, they report back to the prison for a headcount.
After the count is finished, there’s not a lot to do, so the women spend hours playing cards. Twenty-nine-year-old Mikel Sherrill is one the inmates.
"In our free time, when we’re just sitting around the pod, when we can’t be outside, that’s what we’re doing. We’re playing cards. Mostly, Spades."
But now, when Mikel plays the Queen of Spades, she’ll see the face of Carina Saunders, a 19-year-old Oklahoma girl who was murdered in 2011. Her killer was never found. Jessica Brown is with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
"It looks like a regular deck of playing cards, but on the card itself, it has a picture of the individual, on a homicide let’s say it has the picture, and it has a brief synopsis of the case."
Cards are a way to pass the time and officials hope while inmates are playing a game, they’ll see the faces of these crime victims and start talking. Sherrill says prison is like a small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business, and when the first two decks of cards arrived at the prison last week, the inmates were curious.
"They were passing them out. ‘Hey, what are those, let me see this. Oh my goodness, what is this?! You know?’ People were trying to see if they knew anybody, knew any faces, knew anything about what was going on."
The cards tell inmates how to report information on the cold cases, and that tips that lead to a case being solved could result in a financial reward. When the inmates saw that, some started calling it the snitch program.
"We’re very smart. It’s just however you want to use your intelligence. You can use it in a good way, or you could use it in a bad way."
Other states have adopted similar programs, and inmates have contributed information leading to 40 arrests in cold cases including two last month in Connecticut, which now on its fourth series of cards. They’ve also become a bit of a collector’s item, selling for as much as $50 a deck on eBay.