LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A civil rights group is upset over a new non-lethal weapon that's being deployed at a troubled jail in Los Angeles County. The device shoots a beam of high frequency energy, supposedly harmless but extremely painful. The jail says it's better than using bullets and billy clubs to put down an inmate riot. But critics say the device may not be as safe as advertised. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Locked inside the Pitchess Detention Center north of L.A., officials showed off their latest tool for subduing rioting inmates. It resembles a supersized dental X-ray machine with a flat screen on top. And it works something like out of "Star Trek."

Mr. MIKE BOOEN (Raytheon Missile Systems): You know, when they set their phasers to stun, they did that so that they didn't kill people. Well, that's exactly what this is, is that it does stun you.

DEL BARCO: Mike Booen is a vice president of Raytheon Missile Systems, which built the device for the L.A. County Jail, a scaled-down version of what it designed for the military.

Mr. BOOEN: You know, I don't care if you're the meanest, toughest person in the world. This will get your attention and make your brain focus on making it stop, rather than doing whatever you were planning on doing. So...

DEL BARCO: Riots are nothing new at this jail. The Pitchess Detention Center has a history of bloody inmate violence, some of it recent.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: A huge fight broke out at a Southland jail this afternoon. Authorities say up to 600 inmates were involved in the disturbance at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

DEL BARCO: 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.

Mr. DAVE JUDGE (Senior Deputy, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department): This is tame. This is mild. 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.

DEL BARCO: He says with the remote-controlled device, 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.

Mr. BOOEN: And it penetrates about a 64th of an inch under your skin, where your pain receptacles are. So what it would feel like you is if you just opened up the doors of a blast furnace, you'd feel this wave of heat. You feel that immediately.

Mr. ANDRES HERRERA (Journalist, Estrella TV): Ow!

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEL BARCO: Estrella reporter, Andres Herrera was one of the nervous volunteers, as sheriff's deputies had a field day testing the device on the media.

Mr. BRIAN DAY (Journalist, Pasadena Star): Oh, wow. That's hot.

DEL BARCO: Brian Day from the Pasadena Star flinched from the pain and jumped out of the way.

Mr. DAY: First, it's just a warmth, and then it just really starts to - it becomes an intense burning sensation real quick.

DEL BARCO: I'm going to try it.

Unidentified Woman: Okay.

DEL BARCO: Ooh. Ow. They got me in the face. No, they got me in the neck is where they got me. Can you believe that? In the neck.

Ten minutes later, I spoke to Dave Judge from the Sheriff's Department.

I can kind of - maybe it's in my mind, but I feel like I can still feel this pain on my neck.

Mr. JUDGE: Well, you know, that's the mind and that's the memory. So you burn that sensation into your mind, which is a positive thing, because we want individuals to remember what this feels like, so that if they are inclined to do something, they may think twice.

(Soundbite of chanting)

DEL BARCO: Three years ago, the Department of Defense demonstrated a bigger version of the device. As a group of people pretended to protest, the machine was turned on.

Unidentified Man #1: Come back. Come back. Come back.

Unidentified Man #2: Ouch.

DEL BARCO: The protest was fake, but the sensation of burning flesh was real.

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

Mr. PETER ELIASBERG (Attorney, ACLU): We're going to use people in the jails as guinea pigs for some mega arms builder to test their device.

DEL BARCO: ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg is asking the L.A. sheriff to reconsider using what he says has a potential to be a torture device.

Mr. ELIASBERG: These weapons are sort of always sold as safe. They're new. They're high tech. Nobody gets hurt. Well, 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 L.A. deputies have a documented history of abusing inmates, and he suggests a better solution would be to prevent the overcrowded conditions that trigger jail riots in the first place.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.