Just because you’re locked up for dealing blue meth cooked up by a mysterious chemist in a pork-pie hat doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion on the quality of your current accommodations. And where else better to share these sentiments than on Yelp?
Following a recent Buzzfeed round-up of prison reviews from around the country, the Washington Post took a look at the phenomenon of prisoners — and family, lawyers, and others who regularly visit jails — turning to Yelp to post feedback on various houses of detention.
“I started reviewing because I needed something to kill time while I waited to see clients,” explains one defense attorney who has written reviews of a handful of prisons housing his clients. “But I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually.”
Yelp says that any business with a physical address can be reviewed on the site, so long as reviewers follow the guidelines, so prisons, jails, detention centers, halfway houses and the like are apparently fair game.
Without much in the way of legal remedies, some prisoners have taken to Yelp to complain about abuse and conditions. A 2012 review of the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles accused five guards of beating the reviewer for no reason and laughing about it afterward. For its part, the L.A. County Sheriff says his office investigates all allegations.
Making it harder to suss out fact from fiction is the fact that, as one might expect, not all the reviews are legitimate, and some are obvious fakes.
“Wow man, this is one nice prison!” reads one apparently “funny” review of the Riverfront State Prison in Camden, NJ. “I visited because my friend Jamiroquai’s staying for a few years. I love what the governor, Chris Crispycreme done on the place. Wow! I mean, when I was there for grand theft in the 80s it was drab, but now they got the cable tv and you can watch the game of crowns and Broadway empire all day and they got a KFC. They even got Play Stations and Computers in every cell and you can practice what you gonna do when you get out so you can get right back in there playing Grand Theft Auto. Nice view of the river too.”
The Post found a questionable review of the Arlington County Detention Facility in Virginia.
“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,” it reads. “Yes, you heard right, they have juice boxes! . . . So if you’re going to get arrested, do it in Arlington County.”
But the Arlington County Sheriff says that the center does not actually provide juice boxes for detainees.
As the Post’s Caitlin Dewey points out, since prisoners rarely have a say in where they are incarcerated and it’s the state — and not the prisoner — who is the real “customer” of a prison, negative Yelp reviews “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.”
With few other outlets, inmates review prisons on Yelp [Washington Post]