The U.S. prison system is in a state of utter and horrific disarray. Inmates endure vile conditions from solitary confinement to poor access to health care to substandard (and insufficient) food to filthy conditions. Whether they're in jail waiting for trial, remanded to custody in prison, or trapped indefinitely in immigration detention centers, this country's inmates often experience profound human rights violations.
For prison reformers — or abolitionists, like myself — the condition of the U.S. prison system is a national shame that urgently needs to be remedied, both on a larger structural basis and on a basic institutional one. Within the prison system, many prisoners have difficulty when it comes to filing grievances, seeking remedies, and accessing the basic services they need. Typically, to pressure the system into making even small changes, they have to take to the outside world.
That manifested to striking effect in 2013, when inmates at the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison managed to coordinate a hunger strike from within solitary confinement. They wanted to protest their conditions and draw attention to the inhumane use of solitary confinement in our prison system, and it worked.
Now, prisoners have taken to another method of protest, one that's creative and a bit tongue in cheek — but it comes with a sharp bite. They're hitting up Yelp, notorious for ridiculously cutting reviews, and taking a swipe at the facilities where they've spent time. The reviews range from hilarious to stark, and I weeded out nine of the best (but there are so many more) to highlight one of the many faces of protest from prisoners in the US.
1) Ivan M. of Seattle, Wa., wrote of King County Jail (1.5 stars) that:
staff was super unhelpful, seriously. i think they really need to take a course in hotel/hospitality management. my check in was late and the kitchen was closed so the only option was a 'sandwich.' when i told the server my bread was moldy and i didn't get no mayo (just a packet of mustard) he acted like he didn't care.
2) Chelsea L. of Orlando, Fla., wrote of Orange County Jail (3 stars!) that:
The bologna sandwiches are impeccable. They use organic free range Bologna and their orange drink is a whopping 5 percent juice as opposed to your standard 3.
3) Dave S. of Palos Park, Il., wrote of Cook County Department of Corrections (2.5 stars) that:
A unique and memorable lodging and dining experience in Chicago can be found here. The personal service and hospitality I received here are second to none...Guest services took a while to check me in but the personal attention that I received was outstanding. They held on to all my personal items and kept them securely stored. The person who took my personal items was carrying a weapon so I knew that anyone who tried to mess with my stuff would really have it coming.
4) Matty B. of Topanga, Ca., wrote of Twin Towers Correctional Facility (3 stars) that:
First of all they showed Bad Boys 2 and did not seem to care that I had never seen the original. How the heck was I supposed to follow the plot...They left the lights on too late and the showers were disgusting too.
5) jason a. of Long Island City, NY, wrote of Riker's Island Correctional Facility (2.5 stars) that:
When I would shower, I would take my clothes and wash them, people thought it was funny, but It was really a way for me not to get my own clothes robbed being there was no jump suits.
6) Charles S. of Houston, Tx., wrote of Harris County Sheriff's Office (1.5 stars) that:
I do not recommend this establishment.
Unfortunately I have had to settle with staying here more than once due to the price, it is definitely not my first choice.
7) Melissa N. of Las Vegas, NV, wrote of the Clark County Detention Center (2 stars) that:
If you are lacking health insurance, be sure to get the free TB test! Won't cost you a thing! But if you happen to have a headache and request advil or Tylenol... no luck!
8) Jen. L. of Austin, TX., wrote of Austin County Jail (3 stars) that:
I got to sleep in a paper gown, on a concrete slab, with no cushions or sheets or anything I could maybe use to either kill myself or get comfortable. It smells like death in there, and it's cold.
9) Richard W. of Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote of Manhattan Central Booking (2 stars) that:
In my cell itself (number 1 WHAT WHAT) I was pleased to find feces on my floor, peeling walls, windows that only let in humidity, and a curious amount of generic graffiti on my ceiling, which appeared to have been written with shoe polish.
Of course, some of the prison reviews popping up on Yelp are false — in fact, some of the above commentary may well come from people who aren't inmates, but rather people interested in joking around or protesting conditions in U.S. prisons via snarky commentary. However, the practice is gaining attention.
As the Washington Post notes, Yelp is actually a very legitimate method of expression for inmates who may have difficulty pushing for changes in their conditions via other means, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which mandates that: "Inmates cannot sue over prison conditions until they have 'exhausted' administrative procedures, and they can ask for only limited changes to prison policy."
Sure, the Yelp reviews are kind of funny, in a deeply bitter way, but it's possible they're serving a purpose beyond entertainment. Reading through Yelp prison reviews, you see a mixture of testimonies to truly disturbing conditions, complaints from families trying to visit loved ones, commentary from attorneys and civil rights activists, and more. In a way, they make the problems with the prison system more accessible and easy to understand for those who haven't been exposed to the issue, because sometimes comedy is a better tool for outreach than dire testimonies.