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Inmates Review Some Prisons 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.

Bad reviews aren’t unique to Los Angeles. In New York, one user wrote that officers pressure inmates going through drug withdrawal to lie about their symptoms, presumably so the jail doesn’t have to provide treatment.

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.