It sounds like something out of science fiction, but to inmates at a California prison it is all too real -- a ray gun of sorts that can be used against them if they cause trouble.
Called the Assault Intervention Device, this non-lethal weapon emits an invisible-but-painful ray that causes an unbearable heating sensation in its targets. The hope is that if inmates assault a guard or fight each other, they will have to stop so they can get out of the way of the ray, allowing time for guards to step in and break things up.
"This device will allow us to quickly intervene without having to enter the area and without incapacitating or injuring either combatant," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca in a statement.
The device was installed last week in the ceiling of a dormitory at the Pitchless Detention Center in Castaic.
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"We hope that this type of technology will either cause an inmate to stop an assault or lessen the severity of an assault by them being distracted by the pain as a result of the beam," Commander Bob Osborne of the Sheriff's Department Technology Exploration Program. "So that we have fewer injuries, fewer assaults, those kinds of things."
Osborne thinks it will work, and he should know -- it was tested on him and several deputies. And he says it hurts.
"I equate it to opening an oven door and feeling that blast of hot air, except instead of being all over me, it's more focused," Osborne said. "And you begin to feel this warming feeling, and then you go 'Yow, I need to get out of the way."'
A guard can monitor the room, and if trouble breaks out, he can use a joystick and computer monitor to trigger the ray. It's about the size of a CD, and travels up to distances of about 80 to 100 feet. The wave travels at the speed of light and penetrates the skin up to 1/64 of an inch.
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"If you got in the way, you'll know," said Mike Booen, vice president of advance security at Raytheon, which has been working on the device for about 20 years. "You feel the effect in less than a second. No one can stand there for more than about three seconds because it really hurts."
The device is being evaluated for six months by the National Institute of Justice for use in jails nationwide to curb inmate violence, and it was installed at no cost to the Sheriff's Department.
A Raytheon spokeswoman would not say how much the machine costs, but one deputy estimated just the hardware costs at least hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The technology was originally designed as a less-lethal weapon for military applications. Larger versions, including one that can heat up a person's entire torso, were mounted on a back of Hummer to use for crowd control purposes. However, the U.S. military eventually decided to not use the weapon in places like Afghanistan.