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Don't Let the Military's Deadly "Pain Ray" Machine Invade the L.A. County Jail

Margaret Winter,
National Prison Project
Peter J. Eliasberg,
ACLU of Southern California
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August 26, 2010

Los Angeles County Jail has just installed an Assault Intervention Device — an invisible microwave-beam weapon originally developed by the military — as a way to subdue inmates by focusing a microwave beam on them to make them feel “intolerable heat.”

Sheriff Lee Baca unveiled this giant robot-like device at a news conference last week, noting the “The Assault Intervention Device appears uniquely suited to address some of the more difficult inmate violence issues,” since it will “allow us to quickly intervene without having to enter the area and without incapacitating or injuring either combatant.”

The claim that the 7 ½-foot tall high-power microwave device — dubbed the “Pain Ray” by the media — will cause no injury is highly dubious, to say the least: There is good evidence from the United States military that it is capable of inflicting not only intolerable pain, but death.

The ACLU and the ACLU of Southern California sent a letter today to Sheriff Baca, demanding an assurance that he will never use the high power microwave device against the inmates of the Los Angeles County Jails.

The device, developed by the Raytheon Company of Waltham, Mass., was dubbed the “Active Denial System” (ADS) in its original military incarnation and was mounted on trucks for “crowd control,” evidently intended to be used against protesters outside American military bases. The U.S. Justice Department claimed that the device “does not cause permanent injury” — but that claim has been shown to be false.

In September 2006, the Secretary of the Air Force said the ADS should be used for crowd control in the U.S. to prove its harmlessness before deployment on the battlefield, or he would be “vilified” in the world press. While the device was being tested by the Air Force, however, a miscalibration of its power settings caused five airmen in its path to suffer lasting burns, including one whose injuries were so severe that he was airlifted to an off-base burn treatment center.

A 2008 report by noted physicist and less-lethal weapons expert Joergan Altmann explained that the ADS device’s microwave beam heats the skin without lasting harm only if the beam is switched off immediately once a temperature of 122 F. is reached — and then only if the beam is not retriggered. Dr. Altmann noted:

The power and duration of emission for one trigger event is controlled by a software program. Model calculations show that with the highest power setting, second- and third-degree burns with complete dermal necrosis will occur after less than 2 seconds. Even with a lower setting of power or duration there is the possibility for the operator to re-trigger immediately. … As a consequence, the ADS provides the technical possibility to produce burns of second and third degree.

Further, the Altmann report said, the possibility of retriggering on the same subject puts avoidance of burns at the discretion of the weapons operator: “Without a technical device that reliably prevents retriggering on the same target subject, the ADS has a potential to produce permanent injury or death.”

The notion that a military weapon intended to cause intolerable pain — and so capable of causing lethal injury when used for crowd control — should now be used against county jail inmates is staggeringly wrongheaded. It is all the more disturbing that the use of the Pain Ray is being entrusted to the deputies of L.A. County Jail, where the long-troubled history of deputy violence, retaliation and abuse against inmates, as well as a subculture of falsification of official records, has been documented by the ACLU in its role as court-appointed monitor of the jails in the federal litigation Rutherford v. Block.

Moreover, inmates at the jail — most of whom are not convicted, but awaiting trial — will not be the only potential victims of this Star Wars technology’s domestic use. We could all get burned. The Justice Department’s National Justice Institute specifically developed the smaller, portable version of the microwave weapon — the device that Sheriff Baca is now preparing to deploy against detainees in L.A. County Jail — for use in the homeland, and not only by corrections officials against unruly inmates, but by law enforcement officers for civilian “crowd control.”

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