ST. PETERSBURG — When Kristin Gibson made arrangements a week ago to visit Larry Shaw at the Pinellas County Jail, she signed on to be a part of the inaugural run of Pinellas County's Mobile Video Visitation Bus.
The bus made its debut Wednesday at the James B. Sanderlin Family Center at 2335 22nd Ave. S.
With three small children in tow, Gibson, 25, was able to spend the allotted 45 minutes talking to her brother-in-law in far less crowded quarters and with a much shorter wait time than she would have experienced at the jail facility at 14500 49th St. N in Clearwater.
"It was very convenient for me, and I will use it again," said Gibson, who noted that the bus' laptop screens are clearer than those provided at the facility.
The bus, which is scheduled for regular Wednesday stops at the Sanderlin Center, is set up with five laptops, allowing visitors to have video visitations with their loved ones in the Pinellas County Jail. Visitations are available by appointment only. During Wednesday's stop, at least two potential visitors were turned away because they failed to make the required appointment.
The bus and its equipment were purchased with federal funds from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program Award, which is administered by the Department of Justice.
"When running at full capacity, the bus is capable of allowing 25 people to schedule visits each day it is running," said Cecilia Barreda, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
One of the main perks the bus brings to jail visits is convenience. The bus not only saves visitors' gas, but also helps them avoid the hassle of fighting traffic to reach the center on 49th Street, as well as the prospect of missing out on visitation time for arriving late.
Despite the added convenience, the mobile visitation bus faced some criticism. "It feels like you're inside of a prison bus," said Angel Appleman of St. Petersburg. Appleman was there with her friend Samantha Sawall, who was visiting her boyfriend, Lester Erby.
Jacob Ruberto, a tech support specialist for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, was on hand to oversee any technical difficulties that might occur in the video visitation bus. "We did have a problem early on with the video screens freezing up, but we were able to get everything running again," he said.
The goal of the bus is to help make visitation easier for residents who may face transportation challenges or other hardships in getting to the jail's central Video Visitation Center.
Barreda said more days and locations may be added as demand for visits on the Mobile Video Visitation Bus increases.
Another proposed stop for the visitation bus is the Ridgecrest/Omni YMCA at 1801 119th St. in Largo.
"A final decision has not been made on this site," stressed Barreda. "The department is currently assessing the need and demand, and depending on the results, a decision may be made on expanding days at the Sanderlin Center or at other locations," she said.
Steven Santoro is a reporter for the Neighborhood News Bureau, a program of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Kirk Bell, a photojournalist for the Neighborhood News Bureau, contributed to this report.