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Are Prison Inmates the Best People to Solve Cold Cases?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on February 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One normally doesn't think of the prison population as being especially helpful when it comes to fighting crime. But as one state Department of Corrections official said, "we've got 26,000 felons behind bars, and they know a lot."

So how do you figure out what they know? Here's an idea -- give inmates playing cards featuring cold cases, and then wait for the inmates to solve them.

A Captive Audience

Florida was one of the first states to implement the cold case cards in 2005, inspired by the decks the U.S. military was distributing to soldiers featuring the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government. Gretl Plessinger, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement described the project as "kind of like interviewing 93,000 inmates for new leads."

The decks feature faces and names of murder victims, along with details regarding the case. Prison officials note that inmates spend a lot of time together, much of it spent rehashing old crimes and exploits. The hope is that the cards not only confirm the veracity of a fellow inmate's boast, but convince other inmates to come forward with information.

Cold Case Cost Cutting

And so far, it's worked. Florida law enforcement solved three murders in the program's first three months, and at least 17 other states, from Connecticut to Texas to Idaho, have introduced cold case playing cards to their inmates. Although "introduced" may be a generous term - most prisons charge inmates for the cold case packs and make them the only cards available.

Not only are the cards helpful in solving crimes, they're cheap, too. "The best part of it all is that it's free," Michael Sullivan, the chief inspector in the Connecticut Office of the Chief State's Attorney, told Slate. "The original deck was paid for with drug forfeiture funds by the Department of Corrections. After that they're self-funding."

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