The Transformation of American Interrogation, Pushing CA to Abolish Juvie Solitary, a Troubling Death in a San Diego Jail, and Environmental Discrimination Against Inmates


America’s decades-long use of a false-confession-prone interrogation technique is going to be replaced with a research-backed “rapport building” method, thanks to President Barack Obama’s anti-torture interrogation group.

Before the 1930’s, American officers investigating a crime would use the “third degree,” which meant torturing suspects into confessing to the crime. By 1936, the US Supreme Court banned the method as a violation of the 14th Amendment right to due process, declaring that a coerced confession obtained by violence could not be entered as evidence. The case, Brown v. Mississippi, was brought on behalf of three black men who were beaten and whipped into confessing that they murdered a white farmer.

The 1962 publication of “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” ushered investigators into a new era dominated by decades of the Reid technique—named after one of the manual’s authors, John E. Reid. The Reid technique is still the style of interrogation most widely used by law enforcement agencies today. It’s also prone to producing false confessions. The technique involves a series of steps on the part of investigators, including assessing whether the suspect is lying, pretending to have evidence linking the suspect to the crime, and minimizing the consequences of the alleged crime.

Studies have shown that trained investigators are just as bad as the general public at knowing when a person is lying, and that the more confident the investigators are about whether or not a suspect is lying, the more likely they are to be mistaken.

With the advent of DNA testing in the 1990s came a flood of exonerations. There have been more than 300 convictions overturned thanks to DNA, a third of which were due to false confessions or false self-incriminations.

Then came President Barack Obama’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which was formed as a means to end torture of terror detainees, and used a non-coercive interrogation method that replaced water boarding and coercion under the Bush administration.

While the work of the HIG—a collaborative effort between the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon—is under wraps, the group has been funding research in psychology, behavioral science, and techniques used by law enforcement in other countries.

One such successful international model is called “PEACE” (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate), and is used in England, Newfoundland, Wales, Denmark and New Zealand.

Now, HIG wants to spread the use of “rapport-building” suspect interviewing techniques that focus on being non-accusatory and gathering as much information as possible by letting the interviewee tell the story.

HIG chose the LAPD as its guinea pig, and has trained 35 LAPD detectives so far, and those detectives have used their HIG training in around 60 interrogations, with around an 80% success rate.

The Marshall Project’s Robert Kolker has more on the issue in a collaborative story with Wired. Here’s a clip:

…the central finding running through much of HIG’s research is this: If you want accurate information, be as non-accusatorial as possible — the HIG term is “rapport-building.” This may sound like coddling, but it’s a means to an end. The more suspects say, the more that can be checked against the record. The whole posture of the interrogation — or interview, as the HIG prefers to call it — is geared not toward the extraction of a confession but toward the pursuit of information.

About three years into its existence, the HIG quietly entered a new phase that marked a significant expansion of the group’s scope and ambition: It set out to start applying its findings in America’s domestic police departments. “We haven’t operationalized enough of the research,” current HIG chair Mark Fallon says. In part, the group just wanted more real-world data, and police departments offered a major source of it. But the bigger goal, Fallon says, was to revolutionize police work with behavioral science, the same way law enforcement procedures were altered a generation ago by DNA evidence and, before that, when the third degree was put to rest.

Los Angeles became the HIG’s first test bed. In 2012, George Piro — a former director of the HIG who had also served as the lead interrogator of Saddam Hussein — approached William Hayes, a captain with the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division, at a conference. Slender, olive-skinned, and fluent in Arabic, Piro was a consummate Fed, a star in Washington for his time with the Iraqi dictator who had drawn the US into two wars. But he was also a child of the Lebanese immigrant community in Turlock, California; before joining the FBI, he had been a detective for 10 years working cases in the Central Valley. He and Hayes connected easily. The HIG, he told Hayes, was looking to fund research into real-life interrogations and needed live data to study. He also wondered whether detectives in the LAPD might be interested in learning more about some of the methods the HIG was developing.

After that first meeting, Hayes arranged for the LAPD to supply the HIG with hundreds of hours of audio from its cases. The response to Piro’s other idea took a little longer. On the face of it, LA is an unlikely candidate for police-suspect rapport-building. This is the town where cops beat Rodney King in 1991, where they killed an unarmed veteran on live TV after a high-speed chase in 2013. What’s more, LA has its own history with false confessions. In 2007, 19-year-old Edward Arch was arrested for murder. He denied being involved dozens of times, but the police recited their theory of the case over and over and suggested they’d be lenient if only he confessed, which finally led him to capitulate. Arch spent three years in jail awaiting trial before a judge ruled that the confession had been coerced and tossed out the case. “I don’t believe it was the officers’ intent to extract a false confession,” Arch’s lawyer told reporters, “but the tactics they used greatly increased the risk of that occurring.”

After a few conversations with Piro, Hayes decided to send Stearns and Marcia to be the LAPD’s guinea pigs. In December of 2013, the two detectives boarded a flight to Washington, DC, to become the first two municipal police officers in the country to undergo HIG training — whatever that was. Neither man was particularly excited. “I’m not a guy that likes to go to training,” Marcia says. “I like to work.” Still, he tried to have a good attitude: “I just told myself, whatever it is, commit to it. Commit to it.”


By now, the HIG has trained 35 detectives in Los Angeles and is coming back to train more. “The LAPD is sold on it,” says Mark Severino, a 29-year veteran of the force who is currently a detective supervisor with the Major Crimes Division.

Since that first interrogation by Stearns and Marcia, Severino’s unit has conducted about 60 interrogations using HIG methods, he says — in cases involving human trafficking, murder, and terrorism. Severino has modified his interview room to be more welcoming and tries to have his detectives talk to witnesses and suspects as soon as they’re identified, to set the right tone for the interviews. “We make our living talking to people,” Severino says. “And the HIG teaches us the best approaches—how to gain people’s trust.” By not single-mindedly seeking out confessions, Severino has found that he’s netted enough information from some suspects to amount to an admission of guilt. In other cases, he’s learned enough to eliminate persons of interests as suspects altogether. In still other instances, he says, they “were able to identify crimes in the planning stage and stop them before they occurred.” Severino has asked other divisions of the LAPD to grade his division’s success rate, based not just on whether they secured a confession but on whether they uncovered new information that helped the case. “Right now we’re at about a 75 to 80 percent success rate,” Severino says. “When you’re interviewing a witness, this system does work.”

Of course, just because some LA detectives have been influenced by a new evidence-based interrogation method doesn’t mean all cops will. Even in LA, Stearns and Marcia are meeting with some resistance as they move to develop department-wide training in the tactics. Police veterans aren’t exactly eager to be told they’ve been doing their job wrong for 30 years. “I think we can overcome that pushback by focusing on the younger guys in our division,” Marcia says. There’s an entrenched culture behind that blue wall — and a new, labor-intensive technique based on “rapport-building” might not be the most likely thing to breach it. “Interrogation and interview is a very egocentric thing,” Stearns says. For some police departments, and for some interrogators, it may be a nonstarter to do anything other than treat a suspect with suspicion.

Still, the researchers and academics who’ve worked with the HIG are determined not to lose momentum. They think they have a real shot at changing the culture of policing. “Law enforcement is hungry for something new and evidence-based,” Meissner says. “They know there’s an issue with false confessions, and they’re looking for an alternative.”


The LA County Board of Supervisors’ May 3 decision to ban the use of solitary confinement in all but a few exceptional circumstances—in county juvenile detention facilities, has given LA-area advocates hope that Sacramento will finally make a similar move.

A bill from state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would place major limitations on the use of isolation for kids in state facilities, blocking guards from using solitary as a punishment, or as a way to coerce kids. Along with various advocate groups like the Children’s Defense Fund-California, the Youth Justice Coalition, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the bill has the support of the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) union. CPOC’s endorsement of the bill is a significant one since previous iterations of the legislation were effectively killed by probation and other law enforcement unions in years past.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Jeremy Loudenback has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“The onus is now on the state to follow the lead of Los Angeles County,” said Children’s Defense Fund-California Executive Director Alex Johnson.

Put forward by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), Senate Bill 1143 would put strict limitations on the use of room confinement (as the bill now refers to solitary confinement) in the state’s juvenile justice system, barring the practice altogether for purposes of punishment or coercion.

SB 1143 is modeled in part on a 2015 settlement in Contra Costa County that came about after advocates sued the county’s Probation Department over the use of solitary confinement for youth in its juvenile halls. As part of that agreement, the Contra Costa Probation Department agreed to isolate youth for a maximum of four hours and only when a youth’s behavior poses an immediate safety risk to other youth or staff at facilities, terms that are now included in the current state legislation.

Leno said that recent reforms of practices in juvenile detention facilities represent a growing consensus that the use of solitary confinement is harmful for children. He cited research from the Department of Justice that found more than 50 percent of all youth suicides in juvenile facilities took place while the youths were under room confinement.

“There are absolutely no studies that even suggest that this practice benefits our youth,” Leno said. “What have we been doing has been exacerbating the problems that these children are already facing. There are better ways to help the children in our systems who are in need.”

Leno is confident that SB 1143 will get to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. But this is the fifth year that California’s Democrat-controlled legislature has seen a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement. For the past four years, those efforts have withered at the committee level amid opposition from groups representing law enforcement officers, such as the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC).


Last August, five days after his arrival at San Diego’s Central Jail, Ruben Nunez, a 46-year-old schizophrenic man, died from psychogenic water intoxication, a psychiatric malady that causes extreme, unrelenting thirst. Sufferers—80% of whom are diagnosed with schizophrenia—can drink themselves to death if not carefully watched and medicated.

Nunez was only supposed to stay in Central Jail for a week while he awaited a court hearing about whether doctors at a state hospital—where he was placed in 2014 after being declared incompetent to stand trial—could keep involuntarily medicating him.

For mentally ill inmates like Nunez, the jail is supposed to receive paperwork detailing diagnoses, any risks, the amount of monitoring necessary, and any other special needs.

In spite of this, there was no evidence that the water had been shut off in Nunez’s cell, and a member of the Medical Examiner’s Office reported that there was bloody vomit on the wall and all over the cell.

Nunez was one of 12 fatalities in San Diego’s jails last year. Between 2013 and 2015 San Diego had a jail mortality rate substantially higher than even Los Angeles.

The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kelly Davis has the story. Here’s a clip:

An investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office noted in his report that the cell “smelled of urine and vomit.” There was vomit in the sink, on a table, on the floor, on the cell’s lower bunk and bloody vomit splattered on a wall.

The report says Nunez’s jail medical records showed he had “a history of… hyponatremia” — a condition caused by excessive water intake — “which required water restriction.”

Critical in determining what jail staff knew about Nunez is a three-page discharge form that would have been sent to the jail from Patton, explaining Nunez’s diagnoses, medical risks and any special needs.

When state hospital patients are transferred to other facilities, even for a short period of time, such a form is faxed ahead of the patient’s arrival, said Department of State Hospitals spokesman Ken Paglia. As a backup measure, a copy of the discharge form is included in whatever documents travel with the patient.

For psychiatric patients who have a problem with water intoxication, there’s an additional form that lays out a strict protocol for monitoring water intake and blood levels.

Due to medical privacy laws, Paglia said he couldn’t discuss Nunez’s case or confirm whether the forms arrived at the jail.

Lydia Nunez filed a multimillion dollar claim against the county — a precursor to a lawsuit — which was rejected in February. Julia Yoo, of the law firm Iredale & Yoo, has agreed to represent Nunez’s parents in a lawsuit.

The same firm represented a University of California San Diego student who was left without food or water in a federal detention facility for five days, and settled his claim for $4 million in 2013.


The contraction of valley fever by prisoners—especially black and Filipino prisoners—in Kern Valley State Prison, in central California highlights the need for environmental justice standards to be extended to incarcerated populations.

The big picture problem is that it’s not just valley fever, and it’s not just California. Colorado’s Cañon City, which is adjacent to an old, cancer-inducing uranium mill—holds nine state prisons and four federal prisons. Riker’s Island in New York sits atop a toxic waste landfill.

While the Environmental Protection Agency requires environmental impact reports for proposed federally funded construction plans, as well as reports on how the construction and where it is located would affect potential residents, especially if they are low-income and minority residents. And in California, there are protections for poor and minority populations against building where air conditions are poor, like, say, the fact that Kern Valley State Prison is located in a hotbed of the airborne fungus that causes valley fever. But at both the federal and state levels, prisoners don’t have the same protections as their poor and minority non-incarcerated counterparts, despite the fact that most prisoners qualify as both low-income and minority.

The Atlantic’s Cara Bayles has more on the issue of environmental injustice and racism. Here’s a clip:

…when prisons are built on or next to former superfund sites, mines, and landfills, the EPA doesn’t require that environmental reviews consider the health of the convicts who will live there, says Paul Wright, the director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of prisoners. Wright’s organization contends prisons across America are frequently constructed on polluted land, and cites concrete examples to prove it. California’s Victorville Federal Correctional Complex was placed on top of the George Air Force Base, a former superfund site. Cañon City, home to nine Colorado state and four federal prisons and penitentiaries, is next to a defunct uranium mill, and has reported high levels of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethene in the groundwater. New York’s Rikers Island, built on a toxic waste landfill, was the subject of a lawsuit brought by former correctional officers claiming the polluted facility gave them cancer.

“Prisoners are viewed as an expendable population,” Wright says. “The EPA has a very long history of ignoring the environmental poisoning of people in prisons and jails in this country.”

Wright is currently crusading against a new facility in Letcher County, Kentucky, which will be placed on one of two sites: a surface mine with remnant waste or a former strip mine with active oil and natural gas wells. In a comment letter responding to the the prison’s environmental impact report, Wright pointed out that exposure to mining waste has been tied to chronic cardiovascular disease, cancer, and adult tooth loss, as well as water contamination. He also invoked federal “environmental justice” standards, noting prison populations are typically indigent and racially diverse.

In its response, the federal Bureau of Prisons, the subdivision of the Department of Justice charged with prison administration, insisted it would clean up mine spoil and that the site would not harm the health of prisoners or staff. The Bureau also responded that it “does not concur with the assertion that federal inmates of mixed backgrounds (as to ethnicity, race, and income) to be housed in the proposed facilities constitute either a minority or low income population.”

The Bureau didn’t detail why it doesn’t consider inmates minority or low-income populations. Perhaps it is difficult to know the racial breakdown or income bracket of the people who will fill a prison that doesn’t yet exist. Maybe the bureau is looking at national data; while people of color are over-represented in the prison system (58.9 percent of the prison population is white, compared to 77.4 percent in the general population), they are still in the minority. According to the Brookings Institute, incarceration does disproportionately affects both low-income and minority populations in the U.S.

In an email, a Bureau spokesperson addressed Wright’s grander claims that prisons are frequently built on or near polluted grounds, saying the Bureau has broken no laws by selecting these sites. “The Bureau’s projects bring environmental benefits such as site cleanup, modern sewage disposal with the opportunity for local communities to have treatment plants, and safe and modern sources of drinking water,” it adds. (The Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

1 Comment

  • ” Between 2013 and 2015 San Diego had a jail mortality rate substantially higher THAN EVEN LOS ANGELES.”

    What does that mean? That San Diego is running a dungeon that should be shut down and burned to the ground? Sounds like it.

    SHAME on them!

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