Panel raises concern about ‘cold case’ playing cards in prisons

DOVER — The Council on Correction has raised concerns “from the public” about cold case playing cards introduced into the state’s prisons earlier in the year.

The decks feature information about 52 unsolved homicides, unidentified remains and missing persons.

The Department of Correction had announced the printing of nearly 8,000 decks of playing cards marked with the details of unsolved crimes — cold cases.

They were then delivered to the state’s four prisons where they replaced the standard playing cards available to inmates at the facilities’ commissaries.

The hope, officials said at the time, is that an inmate who may have new information on a featured cold case may be encouraged to step forward and assist authorities.

Reiterating concerns heard from the public at a council meeting in September, Council on Correction chairman Darryl Chambers said inmate advocates were worried that seeing faces of victims they know on playing cards may traumatize/trigger some inmates.

Also, the playing cards themselves may become the cause of inmate on inmate violence and that the cards may usher in a wave of erroneous tips that could lead to faulty convictions, he added..

Sitting in on the council’s meeting on Wednesday, DOC Deputy Commissioner Alan Grinstead said the agency had made its medical staff aware of the potential negative affect the cards could have and noted that there had not yet been any negative repercussions from the cards reported.

Noting that Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice introduced a similar strategy several years ago, Mr. Grinstead said they’d hadn’t had any issues.

“We’ve gone to the people who have been doing this, and they haven’t experienced any of the issues that were raised,” he said. “They haven’t seen any issues at their facilities or any on the streets related to the cards. But, they’ve solved 20 cold cases as a result of the cards.”

Connecticut’s DOC told the Delaware State News in August that their cold case card program — launched over seven years ago — has worked so well they’re in their fourth edition of reprinting the decks so solved cases could be removed and new ones added.

According to Connecticut’s Division of Criminal Justice, as of April 2017, investigators have received more than 675 tips prompted by the playing cards.

According to DOC spokeswoman Jayme Gravell, Delaware’s cold case cards have also started to bear fruit.

“Since introducing them in September there have been 46 calls placed with Crime Stoppers using the toll free anonymous number — two of the tips were considered ‘actionable,’ meaning they were detailed enough to pursue,” she said. “We’ve had 669 decks of the cards sold since the beginning of September throughout the state — most of them have been sold at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution. They’re also less expensive, about a dollar less per pack than the previous cards.”

She also noted that all the photos and descriptions of cold case victims portrayed on the cards appeared with their families’ consent.

Pressing the concerns, Mr. Chambers asked Mr. Grinstead how the success of the program was being measured and if the DOC had plans to offer alternative standard playing cards to give the inmates a choice.

Though Mr. Grinstead said there wasn’t a firm metric for success, he said the goal is to solve the cases.

“We’re open to periodically reviewing our progress, but our primary measure of success will be: are we solving crimes?” he said.

As to the prospect of offering alternative cards, the answer was a clear “no.”

“These are the only cards being currently sold,” said Mr. Grinstead. “Essentially the agreement we entered into with cooperating police agencies was they were purchasing the cards with the idea that they were the ones that would exclusively be for sale.”

The initiative is a collaboration between Delaware State Police, the New Castle County Police Department (NCCPD), the Wilmington Police Department, Crime Stoppers and the DOC.

Commenting on the council’s role in matters of DOC policy, Mr. Chambers grew apparently frustrated that the council didn’t have an opportunity to examine the initiative before it was introduced to prisons — being made aware of it only after it had been implemented.

“We’re at the point right now that it doesn’t matter what the public feels about these cards,” said Mr. Chambers, addressing the council. “The DOC has already made their minds up that these card are going to be in the prisons — it’s a moot point at this stage.”

The council, established by state code, is designated to serve in an advisory capacity to the commissioner of correction and “shall consider matters relating to the development and progress of the correctional system.”

 

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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