The American Civil Liberties Union is outraged over the application of a "pain ray" recently installed in a Los Angeles County Jail -- a technology first seen used by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which relies upon beams of microwave energy to inflict an intense burning sensation upon anyone in its path.

Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center’s North County Correctional Facility will likely soon know what it is to face the "Assault Intervention System," according to reports by local media.

According to The Pasadena Star-News ...

fires a directed beam of invisible "millimeter waves" that cause an unbearable burning sensation by penetrating 1/64 of an inch into the skin, where pain receptors are located, said Mike Booen, Raytheon's vice president of advanced security and directed energy systems.

The beam, which is about the diameter of a compact disc, causes an instant and intolerable burning sensation when it touches skin, but the sensation stops instantly when the device is turned off or the target moves out of the beam.

At a news conference, several people volunteered to feel the effects of the machine first-hand.

Sheriff's Deputy David Judge manned the controls and fired the beam, using a joystick and a monitor, not unlike a video game, to aim the ray gun's camera.

"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, in a media advisory. "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."

The group mailed a letter (PDF link) to the sheriff in charge, demanding he never use the energy weapon against inmates.

Speaking to trade publication Government Technology, Sheriff Lee Baca presented the counter argument...

"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."

The ACLU, for its part, adds in the letter to Sheriff Baca...

As we are sure you are aware, the military incarnation of this device (the Active Denial System) ("ADS") was briefly fielded in Afghanistan in June and then withdrawn in July without ever being used. The military version can be mounted on a truck and was intended to be used against protesters outside American

military bases. While the device was being tested by the Air Force, a miscalibration of the device's 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.

According to a 2008 report by physicist and less-lethal weapons expert Dr. Juergen Altmann, "the ADS provides the technical possibility to produce burns of second and third degree . . . over considerable parts of the body, up to 50% of its surface," and "without a technical device that reliably prevents re-triggering on

the same target subject, the ADS has the potential to produce permanent injury or death." As the report also points out, "the possibility of re-triggering the same target subject puts avoidance of bums at the discretion of the weapons operator."

The microwave tech has been in development for years, and while it was first deployed in warzones by the U.S. Department of Defense, the technology seems to be better suited to this type of crowd control.

Back when it was better known as the "Active Denial System," a report [PDF link] by the German Foundation for Peace Research noted...

Concerning use of the ADS against combatants in armed conflict, there seem to be no technical arguments that would result in its exclusion, given that the weapon would be lethal only after relatively long exposure, and considering that flame-throwers – which can produce severe burn injuries and death much faster – are an accepted means of combat. Thus, specific limitations under international humanitarian law do not seem appropriate. (Of course, the general rules – avoid unnecessary suffering, do not attack combatants hors de combat or surrendering etc. – would apply here as with all other means of warfare.)

However, use of the ADS in armed conflict is not very probable: the system presents a large, relatively immobile target that due to its line-of-sight propagation cannot take cover easily. It seems vulnerable to many kinds of light weapons, above rifle range a machine gun may be needed to attack it. A second reason is that armed forces could prepare for millimetre-wave weapons of an opponent relatively easily by adding electromagnetic shielding material to the battle dress, covering the hands, and providing a transparent, but conductive face shield. The latter will be not so easy to achieve for non-state actors.

The down-scaled version being installed in Los Angeles County has the impact radius of roughly "a DVD," according to Sheriff Baca.

Regardless of its size, the ACLU insists use of such a device on American prisoners is "tantamount to torture."