September 30, 2011 By Sarah Rich
Video conferencing is often thought of as a useful tool to connect with people in distant locations. Students and teachers living in foreign countries take advantage of the technology to communicate with loved ones back home, and businesses use video conferencing to hold meetings with representatives sprawled across various locations.
The technology is also providing a link between inmates and their relatives and friends in Pinellas County, Fla., where all visitations are done electronically. But the public has a choice: go to the jail to video conference with an inmate, or chat from a high-tech bus that travels throughout the county, making stops in certain cities.
The mobile visitation program, which began in 2009, facilitates communication between the public and the incarcerated via a high-tech bus. The Sheriff’s Office purchased the bus and outfitted it with six laptops that are equipped with video-conferencing software, said Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats. To video chat with an inmate, residents register in advance for a 40-minute time slot, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s website. Each week, the bus visits four cities located within Pinellas County, reducing the number of people using the jail’s onsite visitation facility.
“I thought if we could reduce the demands of our inmate visitation — at the video visitation at the jail complex — and put it out in the community, it would help relieve the demand for services at the complex for video visitation,” Coats said.
Residents can still communicate with inmates from the Video Visitation Center located in the Pinellas County Jail Administration Support building, but Coats said having the visitation bus also benefits those who can’t afford to drive to the jail or lack adequate transportation.
The original bus was purchased from an auction in 2009, but due to maintenance problems, the department upgraded to a newer model last year, Coats said.
The six laptops on the bus connect to a wireless modem, which connects to a wireless access point (WAP) at each of the four locations. This WAP is available via a shared connection provided by local Internet service provider Bright House Networks, said Tom Boos, technical services manager for the Sheriff’s Office. When the bus comes within 50 to 100 feet of the secured WAP, it picks up the signal, which provides Internet access to the laptop workstations.
Of the six laptops, only five are used at a time. “We’re running it at about a 20-megabit download [speed] and about a 2-megabit upload [speed], and because we’re doing a two-way conversation, we have to send video and audio both ways at the same time,” Boos said. “So we’re trying to squeeze in five simultaneous conversations, and we carve up the bandwidth that Bright House provides us.”
To match the caller to the proper inmate, a telephone operator at the jail’s visitation center connects video-conference calls made from the bus to one of the 200 video-conference stations at the jail. Boos said visitors schedule calls based on the inmate’s availability.
The department chose video-conferencing software by VCon, an Isreal-based video-conferencing company, because it’s compatible with the department’s older computer systems, whereas some Web-based services are not. Software by Viewgate automatically turns off the call after the allotted 40 minutes are up.
Creating the mobile video visitation program carried an initial price tag less than $62,000. The bus cost about $23,000, Coats said. Outfitting the vehicle with technology added another $38,400. According to Coats, all funding came from either forfeiture or inmate commissary funds.
Annual expenses include the bus driver’s salary — $34,000 a year with benefits — as well as fuel, and the wireless service, for a total of about $50,000 per year. The program may seem like a costly endeavor, Coats said, but it benefits inmates and their families.
“About 80 percent of our inmate population is pretrial detention, so these people haven’t even been convicted of the crimes that they’re charged with,” he said. “We think it’s important for the inmate and the family members to have the ability to talk via video visitation.”