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Heat Ray Device, Rejected by Military, to be Tested on Los Angeles County Jail Prisoners

by Mike Brodheim

In August 2010, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced plans to deploy a high-tech heat ray device, originally developed by Raytheon Company for use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, as a tool to respond to prisoner unrest at the Pitchess Detention Center’s North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, California.

Use of the 600-pound, 7 1/2-foot-tall heat ray, an active denial system known as an Assault Intervention Device, is being monitored by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is funding a six-month trial of the heat ray at Pitchess.

“We believe that technology can help solve problems facing the corrections community, including addressing issues of inmate violence,” said Sheriff Lee Baca. “The Assault Intervention Device appears uniquely suited to address some of the more difficult inmate violence issues without the drawbacks of tools currently available to us.”

With a range of 80 to 100 feet, for example, the heat ray can be used to target prisoners in circumstances where a Taser would be ineffectual. “This device will allow us to quickly intervene without having to enter the area and without incapacitating or injuring either combatant,” Sheriff Baca stated.

Indeed, according to Raytheon’s website, the device “emits a focused beam of wave energy ... and produces an intolerable heating sensation that causes targeted individuals to flee.” The sensation stops, however, “when the targeted individual moves away from the beam.” The heat ray uses millimeter waves that penetrate the skin to the depth of 1/64 of an inch, causing a feeling of intense burning, according to Raytheon vice president Mike Booen.

Of course, as the manufacturer, Raytheon has a financial incentive to promote its Assault Intervention Device as being safe and effective. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Southern California, by contrast, argue that use of the heat ray is tantamount to torture.

“The idea that a military weapon designed to cause intolerable pain should be used against County Jail inmates is staggeringly wrongheaded,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, adding, “Unnecessarily inflicting severe pain and taking such unnecessary risks with people’s lives is a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment and due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

In a letter to Sheriff Baca demanding that he not employ the heat ray against jail prisoners, the ACLU noted that the military itself declined to use the weapon – in part based on humanitarian grounds – as a crowd control device in Afghanistan. The ACLU further observed that when it was field-tested by the U.S. Air Force, the device caused five airmen to suffer lasting burns.

Citing a 2008 report by physicist and less-lethal weapons expert Dr. Juergen Altmann, the ACLU alleged that the Assault Intervention Device can cause second- and third-degree burns, and, without reliable protections, can produce permanent injury or even death.

Considering the potential for serious abuse of the device, it is ironic, if not unfortunate, that the heat ray is controlled in a jail setting with a “joystick.”

Sources: www.wired.com, ACLU letter dated August 26, 2010, www.pasademastarnews.com