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U.S. Prisons Hope Card Games Will Lead To Clues In Unsolved Cases


During the Iraq War, the United States military distributed decks of cards. These widely spread cards showed faces of Iraq's most wanted. Now law enforcement officials are hoping that inmates in American prisons will help play a role in a similar program focused on unsolved cases. Here's Rachel Hubbard of member station KOSU.

RACHEL HUBBARD, BYLINE: When inmates at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center in Oklahoma City finished their day jobs, they report back to the prison for a headcount.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Over loudspeaker) Count is clear. Count is clear. Compound is open. Count is clear.

HUBBARD: After the count is finished, there's not a lot to do, so the women spend hours playing cards. Twenty-nine-year-old Michael Sherrell (ph) is one of the inmates.

MICHAEL SHERRELL: In our free time when we're just sitting around the pod and when we can't be outside, that's what we're doing. We're playing cards, mostly spades.

HUBBARD: But now when Michael 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.

JESSICA BROWN: It looks like a regular deck of playing cards, but on the card itself - on the inside of the card - it has a picture of the individual. Let's say a homicide victim has the picture. And it has a brief synopsis of the case.

HUBBARD: 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. Sherrell 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.

SHERRELL: Hey, what are those? Let me see this. Oh, my goodness. What is this? You know, like, people were trying to see if they knew anybody, if they knew any faces, knew anything about, you know, what was going on.

HUBBARD: 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.

SHERRELL: We're very smart, you know. So it's just however you want to use your intelligence. You can use it in a good way or you can use it in a bad way.

HUBBARD: 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 is 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. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Hubbard in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Hubbard is a 20-year news veteran and serves as KOSU's executive director.