HAYWARD — When someone is arrested and thrown in jail, friends and family are often desperate for information. But a call to the jail can become an exercise in frustration.

Asking the Santa Rita county jail in Dublin for such vital information as bail amounts, charges filed or hearing dates often entails navigating an automated menu tree until you are finally connected with a busy signal.

But a new feature on the Alameda County Web site, called the Inmate Locator, now makes finding such information a whole lot easier.

Capt. Burt Wilkinson, commanding officer at Santa Rita, said that throughout his 36-year career with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, a consistent complaint from the public has been the inability to get timely information about inmates.

"The public has a right" to get that information, Wilkinson said. "It's a state law that we provide certain information."

The four clerks on duty in Santa Rita's public information lobby often get backed up, Wilkinson explained. They handle both telephone calls and walk-ins, he said, and at night or on weekends and holidays, fewer than four clerks are on duty.

"The calls will stack up," he said. "We have one of the largest jail systems in the state, so it gets busy."

Wilkinson said he hopes the Inmate Locator will provide the public with information quickly and in a more efficient manner.

The Inmate Locator can be found on the Alameda CountyWeb site at http://www.acgov.org/sheriff—app. After a person's name is entered into the proper fields, a search can begin. If the person is in custody, public information about him or her will be displayed.

For example, as of Thursday, two men named John Smith were in custody at Santa Rita. Details of their sex, race, occupation, date of birth, eye color, hair color, height and weight were available.

Time and location of arrests are given, as well as the criminal booking charges.

Most importantly for friends and family, the bail amount and the time, date and location of the inmate's next hearing are listed.

Wilkinson said it is legal and possible to display inmates' booking photos with their information, but that there are no plans at this time to add photos.

One feature on the site allows users to view all the names and information of everyone booked into any jail in the county over the past 24 hours.

The Inmate Locator went online Feb. 20, according to the county's Information Technology Department manager, Frank Ficken.

Ficken said the locator feature was designed in-house by a team of five developers in his department.

He said about a year ago, Wilkinson came to his staff and spoke about a need for a better way to get information about inmates out to the public.

Ficken said his team then came up with a conceptual design. "We had seen that other sheriff's departments have done this," he said.

The Inmate Locator project was approved, and about three months ago it went into development, Ficken said.

The locator pulls information from law enforcement databases in Alameda County, he explained. "It shows anyone in custody at any jail in the county."

Ficken said links to the Inmate Locator will be placed on the Santa Rita jail Web site, as well as on all the police department Web sites in Alameda County.

Jason Sweeney can be reached at 510-293-2469 or jsweeney@bayareanewsgroup.com.