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Inmates Online

Everyone’s a Critic: Prison Reviews on Yelp

Online prison reviews: Proof people feel increasingly compelled to review every single experience or interaction they have

Photograph by Just One Film

Online prison reviews: Proof people feel increasingly compelled to review every single experience or interaction they have

The Lew Sterrett Justice Center in Dallas is a jail built to hold inmates awaiting trial or transfer to state or federal prison. It’s also, according to its Yelp page, “the crappiest place on earth.” Yes, Lew Sterrett is reviewed on Yelp (YELP), a site better known for allowing users to rate restaurants, hotels, and hair salons. Rikers Island, San Quentin, and Sing Sing, it turns out, also have Yelp pages. Lew Sterrett’s Yelp page is currently the third result that comes up on Google (GOOG).

Are the reviews for real? Some of them clearly are not: “The industrial vibe of the accommodations, combined with the summer camp atmosphere among the guests, somehow managed to be both sophisticated and good old-fashioned fun.” Others, however, sound like the work of people who have spent time at the facility (and, possibly, some of its competitors) and have set out to honestly relay what it’s like.

You’ll come across nuggets like this:

“There is also a fairly active drug traffic in this jail as prisoners sell their prescription meds in exchange for commissary. The commissary contract is held by a criminal company that offers a very small sampling of low quality goods at ten times the ‘real world’ prices, which is in stark contrast to legitimate commissary contracts in places like Fort Bend County which feature reasonable prices and a decent variety of goods, even including necessities like vitamins and underclothes.”

What is a reader supposed to do with this information? The idea of comparison shopping or doing due diligence makes a lot of sense when planning a Caribbean vacation, but there’s not a lot of choosing involved in getting sent to jail. And telling a judge that you’d rather not go to a particular detention facility because you read on Yelp that its commissary prices are high is probably ill-advised.

What it is, though, is another example of just how prevalent the culture of reviewing has become. Everyone really is a critic, and we’ve all had to get used to the spectacle of people snapping pictures of their entrées at restaurants so they can blog about them or write about them on Yelp. As people feel increasingly compelled to review every single experience or interaction they have, review sites become less about recommending a cobbler or cautioning about a burrito joint, and more about self-expression. Everything from universities to churches to the IRS is reviewed on Yelp, complete with a star rating (the IRS gets two and a half out of five).

Yelp promised to democratize the process of deciding what’s good and bad, but in doing so it’s created a sort of communal diary where everyone can write about everything that happens to them. Part of the appeal of reading a review site is a form of remote rubbernecking. As in a horror film, we’re riveted as the vacationing family checks into the hotel, unaware of what awaits them: The shower will leak, the air conditioner will roar, and—worst of all—the hotel staff won’t care. We try to think how we would have handled things differently, how much we trust the reviewer. They’re little morality tales. It was only a matter of time, then, before Yelp went to jail.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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