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A Different Kind of Prisoner Transportation Unit

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A Different Kind of Prisoner Transportation Unit


By: Jim Weiss and Mickey Davis

When mention is made of a prisoner transportation unit, most people think of a vehicle that transports prisoners between jails or prisons. This is not what the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Prisoner Transportation Unit (PTU) is about. Theirs provides county-wide prisoner transportation from the scene of an arrest, taking custody of the prisoner from the arresting deputy or officer, and then transporting the suspect to the Pinellas County Jail. 

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has two forms of uniformed deputies: corrections (jail) and enforcement (patrol). Deputies assigned to PTU are law enforcement deputies and therefore can step in to handle other police functions if needed. The moment the transfer of a prisoner is made to PTU, the arresting deputy or officer is free once again and available to respond to the next call for service.

Before this system was in place, deputies or police officers were out of service for more than an hour making their way to the jail with their prisoner before eventually returning to their patrol areas. 



The Sheriff’s Office already had a PTU in operation with the goal of servicing their deputies. The idea attracted the attention of other law enforcement agencies in the county including the cities of Clearwater, St. Pete Beach, Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park, Belleair, Largo, Bay Pines VA Medical Center, and Gulfport. They realized the efficiency of this service.

In the beginning, a pilot prisoner transport unit program was set up in conjunction with the Clearwater Police Department. In this trial effort, the Sheriff’s Office prisoner transport units responded to arrest scenes within the city of Clearwater, and would relieve the arresting Clearwater police officers of their prisoners and transport them to the county jail. The concept has proven so efficient, it is now provided to all but four municipalities in the entire county.

According to Sheriff’s Sergeant Kenneth Page, the program first began with two, then four, and then eight deputies and eight transportation vans. Now a total of 22 such vans are staffed by 22 Sheriff’s Office deputies; they operate in various day and evening shifts, seven days a week, 20 hours a day. PTU deputies transport 24,000 prisoners to jail per year, about 2,000 per month and are able to assume other law enforcement roles as necessary.

The vans used by the PTU are custom built on Chevrolet chassis, with the prisoner module divided to keep males, females, and juveniles separate during transportation. Depending on such factors as the size of the arrested people, the van can transport up to nine prisoners. PTU vans are fully functional patrol vehicles, with their special setup constructed by prisoner cage companies and the sheriff’s own garage staff.



The Prisoner Transportation Unit is funded with monies received from a Department of Justice Assistance Grant, which provided a total of $3.1 million to Pinellas County law enforcement agencies to improve their efficiency. Of that, $1.8 million is being utilized cooperatively by the participating agencies to fund the transport system. The city of St. Petersburg also contributed to the startup of the prisoner transportation unit, even though that city operates its own prisoner transport vans. St. Petersburg city uses its JAG grant funding for other purposes.

For billing purposes, the cost of transporting a prisoner from one location to another is $50.77; a multiple prisoner transport from a single location is $80.77. These costs are deducted from the JAG grant funding for that particular agency. In addition, all of the deputies have digital cameras, so now the arresting deputy can take any needed report photos, leaving the forensic unit free.


How It Works

A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputy or a police officer from one of the cities utilizing the sheriff’s PTU service calls for a prisoner transport. This could be from the scene of an arrest or perhaps an area hospital if the prisoner needed to be transported there first. For PTU operational purposes the county is split into two districts separated into five zones: South County (Zones 1, 2 and 3), and North County (Zones 4 and 5).

When the PTU arrives, the people in custody have already been secured and searched once by the arresting deputy or police officer. The arriving PTU deputy searches the prisoner again. This time a different pair of handcuffs are placed in front of the prisoner and a transportation belt is put about his/her waist. The cuffs are then threaded through a D-Ring, and everything is secured to the floor of the prisoner seating space. The cuffs belonging to the arresting officer or deputy are returned.

For efficiency, PTU deputies confer with one another. This may result in prisoners being transferred from one PTU deputy to another. For example, if one transport unit has three adult prisoners en route to jail, another unit might meet with it en route to jail and transfer its prisoners. This allows the second unit to be once again available.

A short electronic report addendum is made on each such transfer of prisoners. Mileage is called into dispatch on juvenile and female transportations. PTU deputies do not transport wheelchair prisoners, instead a special van is called.

After each transport, the PTU deputy checks the prisoner compartments that were used.

Except when it is transporting prisoners, a PTU can respond to hot calls as a backup unit. However, PTU deputies must keep in mind that if they get tied up on a call, they can’t transport prisoners.

This transportation system is a time-saving boon to police departments located far from the county jail, such as those of Tarpon Springs and St. Pete Beach. Because the PTU goes to them, their police officers don’t have to make the long transport to the county jail. Some of the police departments have holding cells. In the case of Tarpon Springs PD, they do booking at their police station and the PTU transports from there.

The sheriff’s PTU also deals directly with parole and probation agents’ violators, cutting out the involvement of the local police departments. The PTU unit will also take uncooperative prisoners to county jail. Countywide, about 50,000 arrests are made yearly.


Virtual Inmate Processing and Reporting

A key element in transferring each prisoner from the arresting deputy or police officer to the prisoner transportation unit, and then to the corrections deputies at the county jail or juvenile detention, is a computerized program known as Virtual Inmate Processing and Reporting, VIPAR.

VIPAR is especially important for the prisoner transportation unit and the arresting deputy or police officer because it allows them to stay in their assigned areas while the basic information for the booking process is entered into the computerized VIPAR system report.

VIPAR is basically a Web-based affidavit system that is available in each deputy’s patrol vehicle. The statute or ordinance is built into the program, and the deputy just adds his/her probable cause. This electronic report also includes such prisoner information as name, date of birth, AKA, social security number, sex, height, weight, etc., and sections for details of the statute or ordinance.

When a PTU deputy makes a prisoner pickup from an arresting deputy or police officer, he reviews the VIPAR system affidavit to make certain that all of the required information has been filled out. Then when the PTU deputy delivers the prisoner, the names are passed to the booking corrections deputy, who prints up an arrest affidavit. Any deputy with a computer password can pull up this information.


Bright Idea

VIPAR has been recognized as a noteworthy innovation under the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Information Systems and Analysis Manager Tom Lancto

developed VIPAR to coincide with the ramp-up of the countywide Prisoner Transport Unit.

VIPAR was submitted to the Innovations in American Government Award. While VIPAR did not make the semifinalist round, the program evaluators selected VIPAR to receive a designation as a “Bright Idea.” The recognition is posted on the Government Innovators Network, and was presented with the Bright Ideas seal.

VIPAR is just the latest of many in-house programs researched and developed by Tom Lancto. Prior to his work in Computer Services, Tom was a patrol deputy and so has a firsthand perspective on the information and technology requirements of deputies in the field.


Ask a Nurse

Another element in place at the sheriff’s office is the Ask A Nurse program. In this program, a law enforcement officer, such as a PTU deputy or an arresting deputy, can call a jail-based nurse to assist in making professional judgments that require a medically based opinion.

Generally, sick or injured arrested persons are not handled by the PTU, nor are prisoners who appear to be under the extreme influence of drugs or alcohol. A rule of thumb is that if an intoxicated person can walk, the PTU deputy will probably transport him/her to jail. Otherwise, the arresting officer or deputy sees to that prisoner’s transportation to a hospital.

If in doubt, Ask A Nurse can be contacted, and the nurse will make the determination as to whether a prisoner needs to go to a hospital or whether the PTU can make the transport to jail.


Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, Ohio Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER. Mickey Davis is a California-based writer and author.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2013

Rating : 4.0

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