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L.A. jail testing heat ray as way to stop fights

By Lateef Mungin, CNN
  • The device is called the Assault Intervention Device
  • Sheriff says the device will be useful in inmate dorms, the dining room and exercise yard
  • The ACLU has called for the sheriff to abandon its test of the device

(CNN) -- The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says it is trying out a new way to break up fights between inmates: a high-tech heat ray.

Called the Assault Intervention Device, it showers a person with an "intolerable heating sensation," the sheriff's department says.

Inmates just have to step away from the heat ray to stop the pain, and authorities hope inmates will also step away from the scuffles they were in.

"We believe that technology can help solve problems facing the corrections community, including addressing issues of inmate violence. 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," said Sheriff Lee Baca.

The heat device will be handy dealing with fights in an inmate's dormitory, in the dining room or exercise yard -- situations where jail officials often have to wait for backup to safely deal with the situation, the sheriff's department says.

"This device will allow us to quickly intervene without having to enter the area and without incapacitating or injuring either combatant," Baca said.

The device, made by weapons company Raytheon, emits a beam of energy that travels at the speed of light and penetrates the skin a depth of 1/64 of an inch, the sheriff's department says.

The device is a scaled-down version of a device developed for the military.

A deputy can control the ray by using a joystick-type device.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it is evaluating the device on a small scale for six months to determine if it is effective.

The device has already drawn the ire of the Southern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization wrote a letter to Baca last week, demanding that he abandon the plan.

"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 National Prison Project. "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."