another source for online jail reviews.

another source for online jail reviews.

I hadn’t thought to look up jails on Google Maps until I found myself looking at the street view for Men’s Central Jail in LA. It’s no Yelp, but it’s still jarring to come across jail reviews when I don’t expect them. I still can’t describe why I find jail reviews difficult to understand- I suppose it’s because I think of online reviews as evidence of consumption. I also like to think that if I post an online review somebody associated with a place will read it. For some reason, I don’t tend to think of jails as sites of consumption or places that really mind if you think the food sucks. Perhaps the Consumer’s Republic extends to the most undemocratic spaces? Or is it that the democracy of the internet public allows anyone to write a review- as long as you are out of jail and have internet access?

Worth noting that not all of the dots are jails. Some are juvenile detention centers, others are sheriffs departments, some are historic sites. One of the dots in Wyoming is a dump.

“we can and must make it something else.”

I am occasionally surprised to encounter beautiful writing in my work. This quote comes from a 1945 essay in Prison World entitled “Jails: Yesterday and Today” by Leon T. Stern, then Secretary of Pennsylvania Committee on Penal Affairs of The Public Charities Association. An elegant reminder of Pennsylvania’s strong tradition of abolitionism and some of the same questions that face us today.

“The jail is the proto-prison from which all our local penal institutions have grown. We have called it jail, house of correction, workhouse, county prison, city prison, county penitentiary. It is always being attacked, always being abolished and demolished for its sins against the human spirit. Reformed it rises from its own rubble, flourishes briefly as a newly discovered institution, and soon is a jail again. It seems to grow of itself alone. The jail is made not of steel and stone but of our hates, our fears, our defenses and is destroyed and remade by our compassions when its iniquities become too great. When we have attained true justice the day envisioned by Charles Dickens may come, and the doors of the jails will be barred as firmly from the outside as we now bar them from the inside. Jail gates still close avidly on all we can herd and crowd through them.”


“The jail has not  been  abolished.  When we recall that ten times as many men enter the local prisons as find their way into state prisons and reformatories, the difficulties of abolition of the county jails become apparent. We can depopulate it, we can decrease the use of it; but we are not as yet prepared to have it disappear completely. There may be “something that does not love a wall.” But as long as we are not prepared to substitute completely other methods of treatment for reformation through imprisonment (discovered so victoriously by the great torchbearers of the past), it cannot fully ’abolish’ the jail. We can and must make it something else.”

“The waitstaff were mongrels!” or, jails on yelp.

While teaching at Garden State Youth Correctional Facility last summer, I noticed that I could check-in at the prison on Foursquare (from the parking lot- no phones in the prison, duh). I wondered why someone would do that- it seemed in poor taste, if anything because after enough “check-ins” one could become the “Mayor” of Garden State. But then, almost everyone coming into the prison is either an employee, service provider, or a visitor, and “checking in” is something that one might do in naturalized spaces to say to friends “hey, I’m at work” or “I’m visiting so-and-so.” I never got that comfortable with working at the prison.

I was reminded of this today while doing some light Google research for a project on jails. As it turns out, there are a number of Yelp reviews for jails (google “jail”). Unlike the detailed reviews one might find for a restaurant, many  of the “reviews” I found initially were written by people who had not actually been incarcerated, and nearly all were “reviews” for jails in California (prisons on Yelp yield a more diverse geography). I wondered if this is because more people in California use Yelp, or if they feel such strong law and order sentiment that they feel the need to express it in all possible corners of the internet.

Some examples:

From LA County Jail:Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.02.58 PM



Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.04.25 PM


Ok, so people were trying to be funny. Dig a little deeper, however, and you can find the voices of formerly incarcerated people giving voice to their experiences in the county jail.

From Cook County Jail:

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.03.44 PM

From LA County Jail:Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.03.23 PM

Interestingly, one person took the time to write about her experiences working at Cook County Jail. The combination of “they’re criminals, you can’t trust them!” and “;)” was a little much for me.Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.10.22 PM

Are these kinds of reviews standard for other public spaces and work spaces? Are the tone and tenor of these reviews something frequent Yelpers would find normal? Are there other unlikely places on the web that we might find such a diverse discourse about imprisonment?