“Not recommended.” When it comes to a firsthand prison review, do you really need to know anything other than that?
Believe it or not, that was the actual review from a Yelp user named “Ticha B.,” who reviewed California’s San Quentin State Prison. And for the record, she gave it only one star.
And as it turns out, Ticha is far from alone. The Washington Post has written a story about the phenomenon of prison reviews showing up on Yelp, which lets users review any business, destination, or even prison, with a standard address.
“I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members—a lot of people, actually,” attorney Robert Miller told the Post. In fact, Miller has written several reviews himself, though with the distinct advantage of being on the outside of a prison cell.
The Post notes that inmates have reviewed six prisons in the Washington, D.C., metro area.
Across the country, not many of the nation’s “worst prisons” have received formal reviews for the site. For example, you won’t have any luck finding a detailed description of the services offered at the nation’s only supermax facility, ADX Florence, in Colorado. ADX is home to some of the nation’s most dangerous convicted felons, including the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
Interesting, there appears to be a scarcity of reviews for what are considered some of the nation’s luxury prisons.
However, San Quentin does not suffer from a lack of attention, with 35 reviews at the time of this blog entry's publishing.
The reviews come from a variety of individuals, some who have taken tours of the facility and some who claim to have spent time behind its bars. Overall, the site receives an average of 2.5 stars out of five.
"This is not a place you wanna end up,” writes Yelp user Scott D (2 stars), who says he spent four days in San Quentin when he was a teenager as part of California’s “Scared Straight” program. “Not all big bad & scary like the movies make it, but cold, damp and miserable with really sh***y food.”
Of course, there is no way to verify if these reviews come from actual inmates or just Yelp users with way too much time on their hands. For its part, Yelp refused to comment on the article.
Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur said she was suspicious of some of the Washington, D.C., area reviews. In particular, one reviewer praised the availability of juice boxes at one facility, which Arthur said is factually inaccurate.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t understand what she’s talking about,’ ” Arthur told the Post. “I almost thought she meant the old facility, but this one has been here 20 years.”
However, there’s a potential upside to these reviews as well. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office says it regularly reviews allegations of abuse posted to the site.
“Every allegation we get, we investigate,” Stephen Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, told the Post. “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.”
“It helps elevate consciousness of the problems and brings transparency and oversight to a system that isn’t used to being transparent,” Miller added. “That’s a very valuable tool.”
Though as Baca noted, it’s very strange to see the occasional positive review for a detention facility.
Dylan D. gave a 3-star review of San Quentin, writing, in part, “I heard that the kitchen used local farms and put great thought in to their seasonally changing menu and the service was not exactly friendly but 'efficient.'”