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This bus takes you straight to jail via computer station

Steve Szabo, right, a counselor with the Smart Choices program at the Pinellas Jail, demonstrates the video jail visitation system.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Steve Szabo, right, a counselor with the Smart Choices program at the Pinellas Jail, demonstrates the video jail visitation system.

Get arrested in Pinellas County and the ride to jail will be quick and free.

Go to visit someone at the jail, however, and it is not so quick or cheap. Not everyone is able to drive to the 49th Street lockup in mid Pinellas and bus service can take up to two hours from parts of St. Petersburg.

On Friday, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office unveiled a mobile visitation center that will make the whole process easier for people with loved ones in jail.

The mobile visitation center is a converted school bus, white and green on the outside, gray on the inside, outfitted with five computer stations, each hooked up to a telephone.

Visitors can see and hear the inmates by looking at the laptop screen. It's very similar to the current video visitation at the jail. The technology resembles the popular video chatting program, Skype.

Starting early next year, the bus will make stops at two sites where people can make one-hour appointments: the James B. Sanderlin Family Center at 2335 22nd Ave. S in St. Petersburg and the Ridgecrest/Omni-Branch YMCA at 1801 119th St. in Largo.

All told, the cost of buying the bus, purchasing the electronics, and setting up the whole system was $60,000 — all of which comes from federal grant money, according to Sheriff Jim Coats.

"That's a great idea," said inmate Ginger Johnson, who heard Friday about the new visitation system. Johnson, 35, is an inmate in the Smart Choices life skills program at the jail. She said her father doesn't drive and his back is so bad that it is difficult to ride the bus up from St. Petersburg to the jail. Mobile visitation would make it a lot easier for him to see his daughter.

She said the idea of a visit "lifts your spirits."

As she talked, the picture was clear on the laptop, though the audio was a little choppy. Officials said that will improve once the bus is connected to a cable line at the two sites. (For the demonstration Friday, the bus was operating from a wireless Internet connection.)

"Everyone wants to see their loved ones," said Jewel Murphy, a case manager in the Smart Choices program, where Johnson is participating. "You could talk to them, but seeing their face allows you to know they are okay."

Coats said visitation was one of the ways to keep inmates happy and well-behaved.

There are currently 67 video visitation booths at the jail. Roughly two out of three inmates at the jail have been charged but not convicted and are awaiting trial. There are about 8,000 inmate visits per month, each allotted one hour. Demand is so high that visitors can wait two or three weeks to get an appointment. The bus will help to ease some of that demand and if it's successful, more could follow.

The technology will also allow for other benefits. For example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement frequently sends officers from Tampa to the jail in Pinellas to conduct immigration evaluations. Very soon, the immigration officials will be able to conduct the interviews online with considerable savings of time and money.

The length and frequency of the mobile visitation hours have not yet been determined. The Sheriff's Office plans to begin scheduling appointments through the main visitation phone number as soon as the technology is up and running.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

>>Fast facts

To use the service

To schedule an appointment for visitation call

(727) 464-6842.

This bus takes you straight to jail via computer station 12/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 8:49pm]
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