August 25, 2010 By Russell Nichols
If a fight breaks out at one Los Angeles County jail, inmates might get shot -- not with bullets, but a millimeter wave from a military-based device that penetrates the skin to heat up nerves.
Dubbed the Assault Intervention Device (AID), the 7½-foot-tall nonlethal weapon transmits a focused, invisible beam at a specified target, causing an unbearable burning sensation that forces individuals to recoil. The L.A. County Sheriff's Department unveiled the device this month at the Pitchess Detention Center for the launch of a six-month operational evaluation to see if the tool will help stop or lessen the severity of inmate assaults.
"We believe that technology can help solve problems facing the corrections community, including addressing issues of inmate violence," Sheriff Lee Baca said in a statement. "This device will allow us to quickly intervene without having to enter the area and without incapacitating or injuring either combatant."
The technology, developed by Raytheon Co., stems from a family of bigger, more powerful military solutions created for the battlefield. These larger versions work the same way, but on a grander operational scale, such as creating a protective zone to safeguard aircraft or using lasers to disrupt shoulder-fired missiles from combat helicopters. In L.A. County, the device will be installed near the ceiling in a dormitory that houses about 65 inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center's North County Correctional Facility (NCCF).
This suppression tool appeals to law enforcement agencies because when inmates fight in a dormitory, dining room or exercise yard, jail officials often have to wait for backup before they can intervene. The technology would allow them to act sooner, potentially reducing injuries and curbing violence.
"You don't want to send one deputy in with 65 fighting inmates," said Bob Osborne, commander of the Sheriff's Department's Technology Exploration Program, "which means he's restricted to watching them fight and waiting for backup to show up to do something about it. We thought it would be better to do something a little more proactive."
Using a joystick and computer monitor, deputies will operate the apparatus, which emits an invisible beam with the range of about 80 to 100 feet. The millimeter wave travels at light speed and penetrates the skin up to 1/64 of an inch and warms up the nervous system's heat receptors. Whoever gets hit by the heat wave instinctively moves out of the beam, which makes the pain go away. Osborne equates the sensation to touching a hot stove or feeling a sudden blast of heat from the oven.
"It can't cook you," he said. "It's not a microwave, but it can make you just really uncomfortable. The impact is about the size of a DVD, not an 80-foot-wide swath of destruction."
But the device, he added, won't become the default weapon of choice in the dormitory -- it's just another tool in the arsenal that includes tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. And this particular system won't be in the jail forever. The evaluation -- conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice and the Pennsylvania State University -- aims to examine whether the technology will impact overall patterns of jail violence. After six months, the device will be removed.
The sheriff's department paid nothing for the device; this is only a prototype for research. But even if tests prove that the technology works to quell jail outbreaks, Osborne said he still wouldn't buy one because it's too big and would cost too much. He's focused more on the science behind it. If a smaller, portable version ever hits the market, he said, that might be worth the investment.