LOS ANGELES — A device designed to control unruly inmates by blasting them with a beam of intense energy that causes a burning sensation is drawing heat from civil rights groups who fear it could cause serious injury and is "tantamount to torture."
The mechanism, known as an "Assault Intervention Device," is a stripped-down version of a military gadget that sends highly focused beams of energy at people and makes them feel as though they are burning. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department plans to install the device by Labor Day, making it the first time in the world the technology has been deployed in such a capacity.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California criticized Sheriff Lee Baca's decision in a letter sent Thursday, saying that the technology amounts to a ray gun at a county jail. The 4-foot-tall weapon, which looks like a cross between a robot and a satellite radar, will be mounted on the ceiling and can swivel.
It is remotely controlled by an operator in a separate room who lines up targets with a joystick.
The ACLU said the weapon was "tantamount to torture," noting that early military versions resulted in five airmen suffering lasting burns. It requested a meeting with Baca, who declined the invitation.
The sheriff unveiled the device last week and said it would be installed in the dorm of a jail in north Los Angeles County. It is far less powerful than the military version and has various safeguards in place, including a three-second limit to each beam of heat.
The natural response when blasted — to leap out the way — would be helpful in bringing difficult inmates under control and quelling riots, the sheriff said.
But the sheriff was creating a dangerous environment with "a weapon that can cause serious injury that is being put into a place where there is a long history of abuse of prisoners," ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said. "That is a toxic combination."