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Inmates writing prison reviews on Yelp

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.”

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.

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