– The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) – A device designed to control unruly inmates by blasting them with a beam of intense energy that causes a burning sensation is drawing heat from civil rights groups who fear it could cause serious injury and was “tantamount to torture.”

The mechanism, known as an “Assault Intervention Device,” is a modified version of a military gadget that sends highly focused beams of energy at people and makes them feel as though they are burning. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s department plans to install the device by Labor Day, making it the first time in the world the technology has been deployed in such a capacity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California criticized Sheriff Lee Baca’s decision in a letter sent Thursday, saying that the technology amounts to a ray gun at a county jail.

The group said the weapon was “tantamount to torture,” noting that early military versions resulted in five airmen suffering lasting burns.

Baca unveiled the device last week and said it would be installed in the dorm of a jail in north Los Angeles County. It is a far less powerful than the military version and has various safeguards in place, including a three-second limit to each beam of heat.

The natural response to the device – to leap out the way – would be helpful in bringing difficult inmates under control, the sheriff said.

But the ACLU warned that the sheriff was creating a dangerous environment with “a weapon that can cause serious injury that is being put into a place where there is a long history of abuse of prisoners,” ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg said. “That is a toxic combination.”

Cmdr. Bob Osborne, who oversees technology for the sheriff’s department, said the concerns were unfounded. He said he stood in front of the beam more than 50 times and that it never caused any sort of lasting damage.

“The neat thing with this device is you experience pain but you are not injured by it,” Osborne said. “It doesn’t injure your skin, the beam doesn’t have the power to do that.”

He said the device would be a more humane way of dealing with jail disturbances. Unlike hitting inmates with batons or deploying tear gas, a shot from the beam has no aftereffects, he said.

The device is made by Raytheon. A spokeswoman there did not immediately return a call Thursday.

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