“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 e-mails 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.”