Public Safety & Justice

Prisons Get Rated on Yelp

The business and restaurant rating site is now being used to rate an unconventional entity -- prisons. Inmates are reporting about the quality of the food, the friendliness of deputies, and more.
May 1, 2013

For most of us, Yelp is about restaurants and local businesses -- we can hop on the site and instantly see other peoples' experiences with various service providers, both good and bad. We also can share our own experiences, giving detailed accounts of what went right or wrong, and rate the restaurant or business on Yelp's star scale.

But the site is now being used to rate an entity some consider a tad unconventional: Increasingly, inmates are using Yelp to rate their stays in various jails, which has garnered both confusion and support, The Washington Post reported.

“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 a review of the Arlington County Detention Facility. “Yes, you heard right, they have juice boxes! ... So if you’re going to get arrested, do it in Arlington County.”

While waiting for his clients in Southern California, private defense attorney Robert Miller said he began reviewing jails on Yelp to pass the time. “I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually,” he told The Times. In his review of Orange County's Theo Lacy Facility, Miller complemented the facility for its cleanliness and “very nice” deputies.

While it can be nearly impossible to ensure the legitimacy of an online review, David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, did note that Yelp is offering a unique outlet. “Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse,” he said. “So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing.”

Among the negative conditions that often go on unnoticed at these institutions, Fathi said, are racial tensions, threats of violence and rat infestations. In New York, one Yelp user wrote that officers pressure inmates into lying about their medical symptoms as they go through drug withdrawal, so the jail wouldn’t be required to provide treatment.

Stephen Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, said that officials investigate every allegation made against their facility, even if these facilities have four and five star reviews on Yelp.

“But this Yelp phenomenon I find curious,” Whitmore told The Times. “Jail isn’t a restaurant. It isn’t seeing a movie. You’re doing time for committing a crime.”

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