Prison reviews on Yelp

In my article Prison Vouchers, I speculated on information problems for prisoners choosing prisons (and the analogous problems for school choice) and how those might be resolved (some paragraph breaks added):

Convicted defendants may not know the actual quality of prisons, just as parents may not know the actual quality of schools. Does this argument apply with more or less force in prisons than in schools?

Someone sentenced to prison for the first time may not know much about different prisons. Even repeat offenders might have little direct experience with prisons if they’ve mostly spent time in jails rather than prisons; even someone who’s been in one prison may know nothing about others.

But information is available about prisons from several sources. First, information can spread by word of mouth from friends or neighbors who have been in prison.

Second, prisons can advertise, and (possibly anonymous) reviews of prisons by current or former inmates may be available on the Internet.

Third, there are already ways to evaluate prisons, such as reports from monitoring agencies or the Logan quality of confinement index. Prisons could even be required to publish such information as part of their advertising, as well as other information that would result from the voucher program such as the length of the wait list and the rate of transfer out of the prison. The Federal Prison Guidebook already describes facility characteristics in detail for the benefit of criminal defense lawyers. Another possible model would be the federal government’s “Nursing Home Compare” site, which conveniently pulls together government-collected information about nursing homes.

Fourth, if the voucher program allows an inmate to transfer out after a certain amount of time, that inmate will at least have some direct experience of his or her own prison. If that experience is bad enough, it could be worthwhile to gamble on another prison.

In the “Second” section above, I did drop a footnote, but it was just “Cf. Irina D. Manta, Privatizing Trademarks, 51 ARIZ. L. REV. 381, 415-17 (2009) (describing how feedback conveyed through the Internet can help consumers pick the highest-quality product).” For those who know citation forms, a “Cf.” citation is what you use when you don’t really have anything on point.

But if I had been writing today, I’d be able to cite a recent Washington Post article: With few other outlets, inmates review prisons on Yelp. Here’s how it starts:

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.

As the article notes: “Accuracy is, of course, a major concern with Yelp reviews of any type, and an especially big one when reviewers make serious complaints.” The article ends:

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.”