Wisconsin State Journal

January 25, 2006

Corrections Uses Voice Analyzers State Agency Uses Controversial Devices In Prison Investigations.

George Hesselberg
ghesselberg@madison.com 608-252-6140

The Department of Corrections has used a controversial voice analyzer interrogation technique, introduced as a test in 2004, at least 122 times to what the department considers to be great success in the past 16 months.

Five employees have been trained to use the analyzers, which are based on laptop software and a microphone, said Dan Westfield, security chief in the department.

"We have had very positive results and comments on it," said Westfield.

"You have to understand, this is just a tool to assist in an investigation, it is not something we use to tell if someone is lying or not," he said.

That gets to the core of criticism of the tool, which Westfield said has saved the state time and money when "used to confirm or deny suspicions and as an aid to keep us focused on an investigative path."

He said all requests to use the analyzers come to him, and he decides if it can be used. He has not turned down any request.


Better than a coin flip?

In August 2004, after a year of testing, the department said it would buy into the voice analyzer trend sweeping through law enforcement circles despite a lack of independent testing, announcing intentions of buying the kits at $14,000 each and setting up training.

At the time, the tool was getting increased national exposure, and also criticism. The criticism -- that testing consistently concludes the analyzers' results are, as one researcher put it, no better than flipping a coin -- has not lessened, though no one in Wisconsin has voiced any opposition.

That may be because it is illegal here for employers to use any form of lie detector, "stress evaluator" or voice-stress analyzers, except for those in the business of manufacturing or distributing controlled substances, or providing security services.

The use in the prison system is voluntary only and based on the expertise of the person doing the questioning, said Westfield.

"It's a technique based on a reading of voice patterns after the subject answers a question," said Westfield. "If you are not a skilled investigator, then the training will do you no good."

He said the state's use of the analyzers is carefully monitored.

"We don't use the results to determine guilt, and we do not administer discipline as a result of the use of this," he said.

Prisoners have to agree to participate and there is no retribution if they decline, he said.

"We have used it in some escape attempt investigations" and in battery investigations in the prisons, Westfield said.

"We have inmates who come forward with allegations, and we have used it to clear other inmates of those allegations. It has assisted us in clearing inmates," he said. The analyzer has also been used in investigations of threats, possession of contraband and even in a murder-for-hire case.


$14,000 per unit

The particular analyzer used in the prisons is called "V" technology, which is most often called a "layered voice analyzer." It costs the state about $14,000 for one unit, and about $2,100 for three weeks of training per person.

The Arizona Republic reported last year that about 20 Arizona law enforcement agencies are relying on voice-measuring lie detectors, which claim to measure FM radio waves produced by muscles in the larynx, for criminal investigations.

The Phoenix newspaper noted that while the police are using the technology for interrogation and assessment, they don't use it for internal investigations or to screen recruits. Neither do Wisconsin authorities.

Two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed voice-stress studies and concluded there is "little or no scientific basis" to consider the device an alternative to polygraph machines.

Much of the criticism of the stress analyzers comes from polygraph machine proponents. Often cited is a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which found that "Whatever the (Computer Voice Stress Analyzers) may record, it is not stress. ... The poor validity for the current voice stress-technology should provide a caveat to agencies considering adding voice stress to their investigative toolboxes."

An industry group, the National Institute for Truth Verification, reports that 1,400 American law enforcement agencies have purchased CVSAs in recent years. The group touts the use of the technology in Iraq and at the military's terrorism detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

To date, however, no independent testing has demonstrated the machine's integrity, the Arizona Republic reported.


Some experts are critical

Some legal experts who were recently in Wisconsin to address a symposium conducted by the UW-Madison Law School's Wisconsin Innocence Project, which investigates claims of wrongful convictions, have criticized the technology.

Richard Leo, a professor of psychology and criminology at the University of California at Irvine, called it "complete nonsense," in the Arizona Republic, adding "it's junk science with a capital J. I think these CVSA machines are dangerous, and they are contributing to the process that elicits false confessions."

And Steve Drizen, legal director at Northwestern Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions, who has also consulted with Innocence Project co-director Keith Findlay, said: "The problem is that an innocent suspect volunteers to take the test and, when told that he failed, reaches the point of hopelessness where he can be easily persuaded to confess."

Findlay, who said he had no direct experience with the technology, noted that the failure of polygraph exams is a common thread in incidents of false confessions and convictions.

Westfield, of the state Corrections Department, however, said the technology is worth it if used properly.

"We've gotten our worth out of this; it has cut down on investigation time," he said, adding it has also saved money because it has prevented property damage and disturbances in the prisons.

"If we didn't have this technology, we would still be relying on individual people trained in these techniques, but it would take longer," he said.


Junk Science
Truth in Justice