Most of us have done it. When planning a vacation, or buying a car, or even before trying out a new restaurant in town, we first go online and check out consumer reviews. Websites like tripadvisor.com, angieslist.com, and yelp.com can provide valuable, first-hand knowledge from others who already have experience with the places, things, or services we are considering for purchase.
A recent article in the Washington Post, however, reveals a new trend where individuals are reviewing places that nobody is actually wanting to attend – prisons.
Inmates, their attorneys, and their families have begun using the social media site yelp.com to draw attention to the conditions inside prisons across the country, including the quality of food, the professionalism of prison employees, or even allegations of abuse.
“I started reviewing because I needed something to kill time while I waited to see clients,” says Robert Miller, a private defense lawyer in Southern California who has reviewed three facilities online. “But I think the reviews are actually helpful for bail bondsmen, attorneys, family members — a lot of people, actually.”
Inmates are taking the opportunity to highlight perceived injustices. One review from California mentioned in the article alleges a beating by five prison employees. A posting from New York asserts that inmates were pressured to give inaccurate descriptions of withdrawal symptoms to justify withholding medical care.
Stephen Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, says that all claims, even those online, are investigated. “But this Yelp phenomenon I find curious,” he says. “Jail isn’t a restaurant. It isn’t seeing a movie. You’re doing time for committing a crime.”
In the majority of states where there is no outside oversight of the prison facilities, such reviews may serve to provide an avenue for reform. “Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse,” says David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing.”
Of course, as with any online review, there is no guarantee that what the reviewer claims is correct or accurate, or even that the reviewer is who he or she says she is. And, as the article points out, “It’s not like a detention center relies on good Yelp reviews for business the way some restaurants and small businesses do.” Certainly, inmates are not going to be predisposed to give a rave review of a prison, no matter how well they have been treated during their incarceration. Still, there is truth to the axiom that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and that the increased openness that comes from online reviews will help foster just treatment of prisoners and improve any conditions that could be considered inhumane. Such transparency can provide friends and family of inmates a window into their world, and perhaps even a bit of a disincentive to commit crimes that might result in incarceration.
While not a perfect tool, there is the potential that online reviews can help to make the existing prison system more responsive to possible injustices, and as a result make prisons more efficient in their goal of rehabilitating inmates. Such a result would most certainly be worthy of a “thumbs up.”