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Computer monitors link inmates, visitors in new, high-tech jail trend

On a recent afternoon, Anita Slater slipped into the cool of the Morgan Street Jail lobby and locked eyes with her fiance, Reginald Battles, a landscaper serving time for assault and driving with a suspended license.

For an hour, the pair whispered sweet nothings to each other and in hushed tones, shared the details of their lives.

But the visit, as far as Slater was concerned, was about as intimate as a conversation during halftime at a football stadium.

"I could have stayed home, talked with him on the phone and it would have been no better than this," the 27-year-old Tampa resident said, pointing to a computer monitor in front of her.

Slater was among the hundreds of visitors to Morgan Street Jail no longer allowed to have face-to-face visits with inmates. As of two weeks ago, visitors and inmates now commune using a kind of virtual visitation system: Their faces are captured by video camera, and the images are beamed to computer screens placed in front of the inmate and visitor, who sit in separate rooms. Conversations are carried by telephone.

Exceptions are made for visits with lawyers and other professionals, such as psychologists, and for some special occasions.

Experts say Morgan Street Jail, which houses federal inmates and a few state offenders, is among the dozens of jails and prisons across the country implementing the high-tech visitation systems.

"I definitely think we're seeing a trend, particularly in the last year-and-a-half," said Laura Noonan, the president of Corrections Connection, an online information clearinghouse for the corrections industry. Noonan said the growing popularity of the system is being spurred by increased budgeting for technology, especially as other high-tech innovations _ such as court hearings conducted between a courtroom and jail via video conference _ have been brought into jails and boosted efficiency and security.

In the Tampa Bay area, Morgan Street Jail is not alone in jumping on the bandwagon. Falkenburg Road Jail, the second largest jail in Hillsborough County, has had video visitation in place for nearly a year. In Pinellas County, maximum security inmates have used the technology since early June, and in recent weeks, medium security inmates began using it.

Pasco County jails are contemplating video visitation. "It's a funding issue, but it's something we would like to see in the future," Maj. Paul Veslock said.

Likewise, Citrus and Hernando county jails, which are run by a private company, Corrections Corporation of America, do not have video visitation but expect to install the technology eventually.

The big exception so far is the Florida Department of Corrections. C.J. Drake, a spokesman, said the department has no immediate plans to invest in video visitation. Instead, he said, the department is focused on acquiring video cameras for recording fights and use of force extractions _ a decision spurred by the death last month of Frank Valdes. An inmate at Florida State Prison, Valdes died after a struggle with nine guards, all of whom have been placed on administrative leave while state police and prosecutors investigate.

But detention officials already using the new system say the technology holds great appeal for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, they say, is safety. The video visitation system greatly reduces the opportunity for the introduction of contraband into the jail. "As far as the chance of sneaking in a weapon or drugs, it's nil," said Maj. Steve Saunders, the division commander of Falkenburg Road and Morgan Street jails.

Jail officials also say the video visitation system makes it easier on visitors and inmates. Because visitors don't enter the secure part of the jail, the visiting parties are saved the hassle of searches.

The system also offers greater flexibility in scheduling visits. At Morgan Street Jail, for instance, visitation in the past was held only on weekends and holidays. With the new system, visits are now allowed seven days a week, with one-hour time slots available for three hours in the morning and five hours in the afternoon and evening.

For Slater, the greater convenience is a sorry substitute for seeing her fiance, even when a thick sheet of plexiglass divided them.

"I liked seeing his whole body and seeing him face to face," she said.

Now Slater and other visitors gather in the lobby of the Morgan Street Jail where gray cabinets hold six color monitors that display the visitor's upper body and a clock showing the time remaining in each hourlong visit.

The images on the screen are jerky, and there is a slight delay in the transmission of the sound. Privacy is minimal, with visitors seated within a few feet of each other and passers-by able to listen in.

But for Slater's fiance, the antiseptic feel of the visit holds appeal.

At the close of the old face-to-face visits with his fiancee, the 28-year-old said, it was painful to say goodbye.

"It was so hard to watch her go and not be able to reach out and hug her," he said.

Now, "It's a lot easier to let her go because it's more like the phone at home," he said.