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How Many Stars Do Yelpers Give Local Jails?
It seems like a ridiculous question, but it has a real answer. On Yelp, you can review anything that has a physical address, so some inmates, criminal attorneys, visitors and employees have taken to doing exactly that for the local clink.
It's a bizarre corner of the already pretty bizarre Yelp universe. Some of the reviewers exploit the absurdity of reviewing jail facilities as if it were a trendy new restaurant. Some of them, like any other place reviewed on Yelp, have practical information—especially for family and friends of inmates who need to make an appointment or figure out how much nearby parking costs. Some people complain about the facilities for being like, well, jail—and others make fun of people complaining about jail.
It's certainly strange and there's definitely a dark side, too. The Washington Post today did a piece on the practice of reviewing local jails that is growing along with the popularity of Yelp itself. It explores the absurdity but also what it says about our justice system:
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.
The Twin Towers Correctional Facilities downtown has been plagued by allegations of abuse and corruption among jailers all the way up the food chain (for more, check out past posts on the scandal here, here and here, and we had an Occupy activist share her own story of being brought downtown). Some of the reviews—that, like any Yelp reviews are unverified—complain about rodents, racial tension and power-crazed jailers. The Post says one review from 2012 (that we couldn't find) alleges that five guards beat him up for no reason and laughed it off.Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, told the Post that the department investigates every allegation of abuse it gets, and added that the jail has four- and five-star reviews. But then acknowledging the absurdity of it all, Whitmore told the Post: "But this Yelp phenomenon I find curious. Jail isn’t a restaurant. It isn’t seeing a movie. You’re doing time for committing a crime."
The ACLU likes this trend. David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post that his group receives hundreds of complaints each month about prison conditions but almost none of them make it to court. But he thinks Yelp reviews, imperfect as they may be, can be powerful: “Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse. So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing."
Oh, and in case you're wondering, here's how some of our local jails stack up (and yes, we know that there are duplicates here, but that's Yelp for you):
L.A. County Jail: 2 stars (20 reviews)
Santa Monica Jail: 5 stars (1 review)
West Hollywood Jail: 4.5 stars (4 reviews)
Pasadena City Jail: 4 stars (1 review)
Twin Towers Correctional Facility: 3 stars (13 reviews)
Santa Ana Jail: 4 stars (2 reviews)
Theo Lacy Jail: 2 stars (4 reviews)
Central Jail in Santa Ana: 2.5 stars (8 reviews)
Buzzfeed has a round-up of some ridiculous reviews from around the country. We've included a few "reviews" in the gallery above from facilities in Los Angeles and Orange County.