The evening before Jesus Rodriguez turns 23, his family serenades him with a high-spirited "Happy Birthday to You."

"We love you!" says his big sister, Anna Arce. "We love you, and we won't forget you."

Her vow resonates in the cozy little room at First Refuge Baptist Church, where a webcam facilitates this digital face time among Rodriguez, a Camden County Jail inmate, and some of his loved ones.

Think of the Camden County Virtual Visit Program as the next best thing to being there - a link to a place most of us expect we'll never see. A limited number of half-hour slots are available Thursdays and Fridays and must be scheduled in advance.

"It brings hope to the prisoner that there is life after incarceration," says David Becker, a deacon at First Refuge, which picks up the $165 monthly cost of the webcam setup.

The church in Camden's Parkside section established the program in conjunction with the Camden County Department of Corrections about five years ago. Demand is high; the jail's 1,400 inmates are limited to visits by a single person twice a week. More community webcam hosts are needed.

"Reconnecting prisoners with their families reduces recidivism," says Sgt. Cliff Kareem, who directs the program - which he describes as the first of its kind in the state. Rehabilitating inmates, Kareem adds, is the responsibility not only of corrections, but of communities as well.

(Nearly everyone who's currently incarcerated in America will at some point return home. As will the boyish Rodriguez, who was sentenced Friday to three years in state prison on a conviction related to carjacking.)

On video visitation day, his parents, Jose and Maria, his girlfriend, Anita Ruiz, and his sister cluster around the webcam at First Refuge. A monitor isn't working, so they look at his face on a laptop's smallish screen; the audio is clearer, and everyone banters in English and Spanish.

They chat about a baby learning to walk, of a friend who sends her love, of the season's first snowfall. Everyone's laughing as at any family get-together - except this isn't.

"I'm going to send you all a Christmas card," says Rodriguez, whose digital smile penetrates the pixilation. "You've got to take lots of pictures on Christmas and New Year's."

Rachael Hairston, who recently retired as a corrections officer and volunteers at webcam sessions as a member of First Refuge, has seen the program at work - from vantage points inside and outside the jail.

"People can bring their whole family. That's the awesome part of it," Hairston says. "And we can minister to the people here at the church."

A comfortable and comforting presence, Hairston remembers a father who was so upset that his son was incarcerated that he refused to go on camera. Another time, relatives came all the way from North Carolina to see an inmate.

"They were so happy," says Michael Redd, a deacon who, along with his wife, Charlotte, is a regular webcam volunteer. "That's why we do this.

"It keeps people connected," he adds. "And little kids don't have to go into a jail setting."

He and Becker note that everything from the parking to the elevators to the procedural limitations - one person at a time, speaking by phone through clear partitions - can make visiting the downtown Camden jail difficult for many.

And anyone who's ever been inside the hulking edifice, as I have (wearing a press badge, not a jumpsuit), will tell you it's not exactly conducive to communication.

No wonder that between 20 and 30 individuals or family groups fill the weekly video visitation slots.

"At the jail, they want you to hurry and get out, and you can't talk as much," says Anna, of South Camden. "This is better. You get to see him and he sees you."

Time's up; there are two more slots left on this particular night. The next visitor is a 17-year-old Pennsauken High School junior.

She's come to talk to her dad.

Kevin Riordan:

To watch a video of a family's "virtual visit" using the webcam, go to http://go.philly.com/seeWebcamEndText

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.