Lawyer Robert Miller has visited five prisons and 17 jails in his lifetime, but he has reviewed only three of them on Yelp. One he found "average," with inexperienced and power-hungry officers. Another he faulted for its "kind of very firmly rude staff." His most recent review, a January critique of Theo Lacy jail in Orange County, Calif., lauds the cleanliness, urban setting and "very nice" deputies.
Miller gave it five out of five stars.
"I started reviewing because I needed something to kill time while I waited to see clients," said Miller, who has worked as a private defense lawyer in Southern California for 18 years. "But I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually."
As Miller acknowledges, it's not the kind of helpful testimonial commonly found on Yelp, the popular consumer reviews site many people turn to for recommendations on, say, bowling alleys and Chinese takeout. But as Yelp grows more popular — logging 36 million reviews as of last quarter — lawyers as well as prison inmates and their family members have turned to the site to report mediocre food and allegations of serious abuse. They join the enterprising reviewers who have used Yelp to critique traffic signals and public bathrooms.
Because Yelp does not break out statistics by business type, it's difficult to tell how many jails and prisons have been reviewed in the 19 countries covered by the site. (Yelp declined to comment for this article, aside from noting that users may review any business with a physical address, as long as the review follows site guidelines.) In the Washington region, six incarceration facilities have earned reviews, including two in 2013.
"Jail food may get a bad rap . . . but jail EMPLOYEE food is off the chain," wrote one woman of a local jail cafeteria, where $1.50 apparently buys a plate of chicken, green beans, wheat bread, dessert and fresh, not instant, mashed potatoes.
"At no time did the officer violate any of my constitutional privileges and even gave me a juice box after I said I was thirsty," reads another review, this one of the Arlington County (Va.) Detention Facility. "Yes, you heard right, they have juice boxes! . . . So if you're going to get arrested, do it in Arlington County."
Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur read that comment with more than a little confusion — the facility has neither juice boxes nor a range of other things "Windi L." referred to in her review.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute, I don't understand what she's talking about,' " Arthur said. "I almost thought she meant the old facility, but this one has been here 20 years."
Accuracy is, of course, a major concern with Yelp reviews of any type, and an especially big one when reviewers make serious complaints. In June 2012, a reviewer alleged that five guards at the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles beat him for no reason and laughed about it afterward. Other reviews of the jail mention rat infestations, violence and racial tensions.
"Every allegation we get, we investigate," said Stephen Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. He notes that the jail has also its share of four- and five-star reviews. "But this Yelp phenomenon I find curious," Whitmore said. "Jail isn't a restaurant. It isn't seeing a movie. You're doing time for committing a crime."
Bad reviews aren't unique to Los Angeles. In New York, one user wrote that officers pressure inmates going through drug withdrawal to lie about their symptoms, presumably so the jail doesn't have to provide treatment.
"Unlike those TV shows, it's really best to have as little interaction with the CO's as possible," the review says, referring to corrections officers. " 'Cos, if you DO [irritate them] . . . your paperwork CAN 'disappear.' Seen it happen."
Lawyers from California and Illinois have complained about security procedures that stop them from seeing clients. A woman in Austin alleged that workers in a local jail threatened her with bolt-cutters and tied her to a chair for hours without bathroom breaks. One reviewer claimed a Seattle jail did not return the money he had with him when he entered.
"This was the worst experience of my life and I am a combat veteran from Iraq," wrote another Seattle reviewer. "I would rather re-live Basic and the evil Drill Sergeant's. I would rather be in the box."
Although some look upon the reviews as weird novelties — "like Lonely Planet for career criminals," one Buzzfeed post put it — they could reflect serious flaws in the U.S. prison system. Because of a 1996 law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, inmates cannot sue over prison conditions until they have "exhausted" administrative procedures, and they can ask for only limited changes to prison policy. Just a few states, such as Texas and New York, have outside inspectors who watch for abuse within the system.
Mistreatment is rampant, said Jack Beck, who heads the prison inspection group for the legislatively sanctioned Correctional Association of New York. In particular, he said, his group has struggled to address conflicts between staff and inmates.
The Correctional Association inspects 60 prisons in New York and annually surveys about 55,000 inmates who remain anonymous. Based on that work, Beck said, the association has uncovered serious problems — such as mentally ill patients sent, inappropriately, to solitary confinement — and has advocated reforms.
But in most states that do not have outside oversight, inmates are essentially powerless to report abuse or seek redress. Their one outlet — internal prison grievance systems — rarely work, Beck said, and often invite retaliation from prison staff.
"We teach them, inside of prison, that the rule of law is not effective," Beck said. "There is no redress. . . . Most people survive by keeping their heads down."
That complaint is echoed by David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, who said his group receives 300 to 400 written complaints each month about prison conditions. That number does not include the phone calls and emails the project receives or the complaints addressed to the ACLU's state branches. Almost none of those grievances make it to court. So Yelp reviews, Fathi said, could prove to be pretty powerful.
"Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse," Fathi said. "So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing."
Not all of those reviews are accurate, of course, and many may come from pranksters who don't care about the travails of prison life. The reviews also won't necessarily prompt systemic change — it's not like a detention center relies on good Yelp reviews for business the way some restaurants and small businesses do.
But Miller, the California lawyer, said the reviews can help educate professionals who work with the prison system and inform the public about the conditions inmates face.
"It helps elevate consciousness of the problems and brings transparency and oversight to a system that isn't used to being transparent," Miller said. "That's a very valuable tool."