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A year and a half after the scheduled opening, the new wing at the Pinellas jail is ready.

Better late than never: the motto for the new medical wing at the Pinellas County Jail.

The 432-bed facility marked its official grand opening Monday with a host of dignitaries and a lot of smiles.

But the project was almost a year and a half behind schedule.

When construction began in mid 2004, the jail was scheduled to open at the beginning of 2006. Construction problems and plan changes, however, plagued the $35.4-million project.

As delays built one on top of the other, overcrowding in the jail reached crisis levels. The population swelled as high as 3,900 inmates - 1,400 more than the jail was designed to hold. Tensions rose within the jail, and the number of attacks on the jail staff nearly doubled last year.

The county is headed to mediation with the architect and the construction company, Skanska USA Building, to determine any damages that the county might recoup.

But at Monday's grand opening, there was a congratulatory air.

The facility promises to change the nature of medical treatment at the jail, said Dr. Timothy Bailey, the medical director. He said it would create more of a "patient-practitioner" relationship than currently exists in the cramped medical quarters.

He stressed, however, that this was no substitute for an actual hospital. "It's a glorified nursing home," he said. "A glorified urgent care clinic."

While inmates with some serious conditions will still be sent out of the jail for treatment, the new facility will reduce that number.

The building has substantially increased the number of dental and dialysis chairs. It has added a physical therapy room and an expanded pharmacy. And it has consolidated all the medical treatments into one spot on the jail campus, requiring less staffing.

Cells in one pod, for example, fan out in a semicircle so that a single guard can watch eight cells at once.

"I think this will satisfy our needs for a number of years," Sheriff Jim Coats said.

Lt. Lora McFee, the administrative lieutenant for the health care division, conducted an hourlong tour of the jail, marching reporters along beige and blue corridors, and into exam rooms with spotless black Corian desks.

On the top level of the four-floor facility, inmates with infectious diseases like tuberculosis can be housed in rooms with negative air pressure so that they do not contaminate anyone around them.

As the visitor tours were under way, they crossed paths with platoons of corrections officers getting their first glimpse of the new building.

The plan is to train the officers for the next two weeks.

Then on Aug. 5, the first inmates move in.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.