Inmates Review Prisons on Yelp, Covering Rat Infestations, Racial Tensions and Violence

Prisoners are turning to the online consumer review site Yelp to discuss their treatment within US prisons.

Jack Beck, who heads the prison inspection group for the legislatively sanctioned Correctional Association of New York, told the Washington Post that in most states that do not have outside oversight, inmates are basically powerless to report abuse or seek redress. The only outlets are internal prison grievance systems, which rarely work and can invite retaliation from prison staff, he says.

Since Yelp brings in traffic by the millions -- logging 36 million reviews as of last quarter -- lawyers as well as inmates and their families have turned to the website to vent. Yelp's prison reviews cover topics ranging from complaints over mediocre food to serious allegations of abuse.

While the typical Yelp post critiques a local restaurant or praises a local shop, enterprising account holders have used Yelp to watchdog traffic signals and public bathrooms. Now the incarceration system joins the list of public facilities up for review.

Yelp covers 19 nations and does not sort statistics by business type, so it is difficult to say how many lockups have been scrutinized on the site. According to the Washington Post, six incarceration facilities in the Washington region have earned reviews, including two this year.

Some reviews are surprisingly glowing. One reviewer who has visited family members in Calif.’s San Quentin state prison wrote, “First, the visiting staff is really helpful and nice. You get to know them after a few trips and they, even with all the rules, are pretty cool about most things.”

Other reviews speak of rat infestations, racial tensions and violence. One New York reviewer wrote that officers pressure inmates who are experiencing drug withdrawals to lie about their symptoms so the jail doesn’t have to provide treatment. Another user in Los Angeles alleged in June 2012 that five guards at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles beat him for no reason, then laughed about the assault.

Stephen Whitmore, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, told the Washington Post that the department investigates every allegation it receives, adding 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.”

David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Washington Post that his group receives 300 to 400 written complaints about prison conditions per month. This figure excludes phone calls and emails the project receives, and almost none of those complaints make it to court. So, Fathi told the Post, Yelp reviews are a valuable way to increase public awareness. “Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse,” Fathi told the Washington Post. “So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing.”

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