Zapping Inmates To Control Them: Harmless Or Torture?

An Assault Intervention Device stands at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correction Facility. i i

hide captionAn Assault Intervention Device stands at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correction Facility, on Aug. 20 in Santa Clarita, Calif. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is taking heat for its plans to put the new type of weapon in one of its jails.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department /AP
An Assault Intervention Device stands at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correction Facility.

An Assault Intervention Device stands at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correction Facility, on Aug. 20 in Santa Clarita, Calif. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is taking heat for its plans to put the new type of weapon in one of its jails.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department /AP

Los Angeles authorities have unveiled a new high-tech device designed to control rowdy inmates: a mechanism that blasts millimeter beams that simulate intense heat.

At the Pitchess Detention Center, north of Los Angeles, officials recently showed off their latest tool, which resembles a supersized dental X-ray machine with a flat screen on top. It works like something out of Star Trek.

"You know when they set their phasers to stun, they did that so they didn't kill people? Well, that's exactly what this is. It does stun you," says Mike Booen, a vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems. The company built the device for the Los Angeles County Jail, a scaled-down version of what it designed for the military.

"I don't care if you're the meanest, toughest person in the world," he says, "this will get your attention and make your brain focus on making it stop, rather than doing whatever you were planning on doing."

The Pain

Riots are nothing new at this jail. The Pitchess Detention Center has a history of bloody inmate violence. In fact, the latest brawl between 200 inmates broke out two days after the Raytheon device was unveiled.

Dave Judge, the operation deputy for the sheriff's department, says the machine is more effective than their usual methods of firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades.

"This is tame; this is mild," Judge says." This is a great way to intervene without causing any harm. The nice thing about this is it allows you to intervene at a distance."

With the remote-controlled device, he says, guards can focus on specific targets using a monitor and a joystick.

Raytheon's Booen says the device sends out millimeter waves, creating a harmless, but intense sensation.

"It penetrates about a 64th of an inch under your skin," Booen explains. "That's about where your pain receptacles are. So it's what it would feel like if you just opened up the doors of a blast furnace. You feel this wave of heat immediately."

Recently, the sheriff's deputies had a field day testing the device on the media. "Ow!" yelled Estrella TV reporter Andres Herrera, a nervous volunteer, as he got zapped from across the room.

"Holy smokes!" cried Brian Day, a reporter with the Pasadena Star, as he flinched from the pain and jumped out of the way.

"At first, it's a warmth," he says. "Then it becomes an intense burning sensation real quick."

When I volunteered, the guards hit me first in the arm, and stronger, in the neck. Ten minutes later, I swear I could still feel the pain.

"That's the mind and that's the memory," Judge says. "We all tend to imprint a discomfort. So you burn that sensation in your mind, which is a positive thing, because we want individuals to remember that. So if they're inclined to do [something wrong], they think twice and not do it."

Protests Over The Taser

Three years ago, the Department of Defense demonstrated a bigger version of the device it considered using. During one simulation, it repelled a pretend group of protesters with the "Active Denial System" direct energy weapon mounted on a military vehicle.

The U.S. Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Programs reportedly never actually used the device in Afghanistan, but a spokeswoman says they are considering related technology.

Now, Los Angeles has been given a smaller, civilian version of the same device free. But the ACLU says that's a bad idea.

"We're going to use people in the jails as guinea pigs for some mega arms builder to test their device," ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg says.

He sent a letter to L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca asking him to reconsider using what he says has the potential to be a torture device.

"These weapons are always sold as safe, they're new, they're high tech, nobody gets hurt," Eliasberg says sarcastically. "We heard that about Tasers, and yet what we subsequently find is that, in fact, Tasers cause heart attacks with people if they're repeatedly jolted."

Eliasberg says some tests of the millimeter device have badly burned people with repeated zaps. And he notes that Los Angeles deputies have a documented history of abusing inmates. Eliasberg suggests a better solution would be to prevent the overcrowded conditions that trigger jail riots in the first place.

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