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April 28, 2013

Lawyers and prisoners using Yelp to review lock-ups

Yelp_logo.svgAs reported in this new Washington Post piece, headlined "With few other outlets, inmates review prisons on Yelp," one can find more than restaurant reviews on-line these days.   Here are excerpts from this article:

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.”...

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....

Accuracy is, of course, a major concern with Yelp reviews of any type, and an especially big one when reviewers make serious complaints.  In June 2012, a reviewer alleged that five guards at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles beat him for no reason and laughed about it afterward. Other reviews of the jail mention rat infestations, violence and racial tensions.

“Every allegation we get, we investigate,” said Stephen Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.  He notes that the jail has also its share of four- and five-star reviews.  “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.”

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....

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....

David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union ... said his group receives 300 to 400 written complaints each month about prison conditions.  That number does not include the phone calls and e-mails the project receives or the complaints addressed to the ACLU’s state branches.  Almost none of those grievances make it to court.  So Yelp reviews, Fathi said, could prove to be pretty powerful.  “Prisons and jails are closed institutions, and the lack of outside scrutiny and oversight sometimes facilitates mistreatment and abuse,” Fathi said.  “So anything that increases public awareness of prison conditions is a positive thing.”

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.  The reviews also won’t necessarily prompt systemic change — it’s not like a detention center relies on good Yelp reviews for business the way some restaurants and small businesses do.

But Miller, the California lawyer, said the reviews can help educate professionals who work with the prison system and inform the public about the conditions inmates face.  “It helps elevate consciousness of the problems and brings transparency and oversight to a system that isn’t used to being transparent,” Miller said.  “That’s a very valuable tool.”

April 28, 2013 at 08:35 PM | Permalink


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Yelp this.

Articles about the Theo Lacy Jail in the LA Times

Cameras installed at Theo Lacy Jail
May 20, 2008 | H.G. Reza
Privacy walls have been knocked down and surveillance cameras installed in a section of Theo Lacy Jail, providing better visibility for guards, Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Dave Wilson said Monday. The west section of Module F is where an inmate was beaten to death in 2006 by other inmates. Authorities said the assault occurred behind a privacy wall and out of sight of jail guards inside a guard station a short distance away. A grand jury report revealed that the ranking deputy was watching television and text messaging friends while the assault, which went on for about 50 minutes, was taking place.

California Briefing / Santa Ana
September 10, 2009 | Robert J. Lopez
An inmate facing murder charges in the beating death of a man in an Orange County jail filed a claim Wednesday, alleging that deputies ordered him to attack the man, who had been arrested on child pornography charges. Stephen Carlstrom, who is seeking $100 million in damages, is charged along with several other inmates in the 2006 killing of John Derek Chamberlain in the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange. In his claim for damages, Carlstrom alleges that two deputies ordered him to give Chamberlain a "touch-up" -- a beating in jailhouse jargon.

Theo Lacy Jail Inmate Dies at Medical Center
August 1, 1996 | THAO HUA
A 44-year-old inmate at the Theo Lacy Branch Jail died early Wednesday of unknown causes, officials said. The man, whose name was being withheld pending family notification, was found unconscious on his bed during a 5 a.m. check, Sheriff's Lt. Tom Garner said. "When they shook him to wake him up, he didn't respond," Garner said. Deputies called a nurse, who summoned paramedics when she discovered that the La Habra man was not breathing.

U.S. probes Orange County's jail system
August 14, 2009 | Tami Abdollah
The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into Orange County's troubled jail system, examining a decade's worth of allegations that deputies mistreated inmates and used excessive force to keep control. Officials from the department's Civil Rights Division are seeking to determine whether incidents of violence by jail personnel amount to a pattern of violating inmates' rights, the Sheriff's Department confirmed. The Orange County district attorney criticized deputies earlier this year for a "code of silence" that he said hampered prosecutors' ability to investigate possible criminal activities.

4th deputy leaves amid O.C. jail probe
January 14, 2009 | Tami Abdollah
A fourth Orange County Sheriff's Department employee named in a grand jury investigation into the 2006 beating death of an inmate at the county's largest jail has left the department, a sheriff's official said Tuesday. Sheriff's Special Officer Phillip Le, who was on duty at the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange when inmate John Derek Chamberlain was beaten to death, was placed on administrative leave April 7, the day the grand jury transcript was released. Le's last day at the department was Dec.

No proof that Taser killed cat
May 7, 2008 | Stuart Pfeifer, Times Staff Writer
Orange County sheriff's officials have found no evidence to prove that deputies used a Taser electric stun weapon on a stray cat at Theo Lacy Jail in Orange, a spokesman said Tuesday. Last month, the department disclosed that it was investigating inmate reports that deputies had shocked a cat with a Taser and that the decomposed carcass of a cat was found on the jail grounds.

More at the link.

Posted by: Anon | Apr 28, 2013 9:11:16 PM

May we look forward to a Yelp review of the inmates?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 28, 2013 9:24:33 PM

Litigation forced a change in practices that reduced jail suicide by 90%.

I believe the control of the body makes prisons liable for violence, rapes and murders within their walls, even if the criminal act is an unforeseen intervening cause.

Less Yelp, more lawsuits for wrongful deaths, sexual victimization and beatings. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 28, 2013 10:47:16 PM

Bill, I hope you support the end of extra-judicial punishments going on in prisons as well as any lawlessness by prison administrations.

That subject may be a good retirement hobby, and highly lucrative as well for an experienced litigator.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 28, 2013 10:50:26 PM

SC --

"Bill, I hope you support the end of extra-judicial punishments going on in prisons as well as any lawlessness by prison administrations."

I think my views on lawlessness are pretty well known by now. If the guards can't behave themselves, it will be others on this board, not me, who'll be insisting they had too many Twinkies, not enough Head Start, etc., et al.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 29, 2013 8:40:57 AM

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