Yelp is a bastion of Internet snark, a safe harbor for the aggrieved and the slighted, and the go-to source for user-generated reviews of everything from local coffee shops to doctors and hospitals. It’s also a rabbit hole that provides a bizarre, sometimes harrowing, look into the American penal system.
When most people hear about Yelp, they think about local business reviews, and that has been the main focus of the site since its inception. Restaurants, food, nightlife, and shopping top the review site’s list of main categories. But if you dig in deeper, you’ll find that Yelp also includes a “Public Services and Government” section, where you’ll find listings for everything from the local DMV and library to jails and prisons.
Of course, it’s just as easy to review these public institutions on Yelp as it is to submit a review on the local coffee shop. Anyone with access to the Internet can leave a Yelp review, and an increasing number of former inmates, families of inmates, and even employees of these facilities are choosing to lay it all out there.
And a lot of what they have to say isn’t very pretty.
New York’s infamous Rikers Island boasts a pretty mediocre two and a half star rating on Yelp. The headline review, written by a former inmate, isn’t very kind.
“Great vacation getaway if you like getting your butt kicked from both inmates and officers,” writes Leslie W. in the Yelp review. “Food is decent but I’ve had alot better from the dollar menu. Floors are dirty. I seen bed bugs crawling around the size if [sic] roaches. Gotta wash your under wears in the sink if your unlucky you will have to do them for others.”
At other times, former inmates use Yelp to offer advice to anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves at that facility in the future.
“I later learned to get a muslim halal card, and a jewish card, and know the kitchen staff to see which card would get me a better meal for the day,” writes Jason A., another former inmate at the prison. “Chocolate pudding was great.”
Despite the chocolate pudding, Jason’s Yelp review gave Rikers only a single star.
Another Yelp reviewer, Mike L., claims to be neither an inmate nor a corrections officer, but he paints a pretty grim picture of the food.
“I have a huge appetite so I figured how bad could the food be? Well, for starters the hot dogs are an unnatural white and they have bones in them! So be thankful next time you eat a boneless hotdog. Another frequent dish is the rainbow baloney that comes in various colors from an iridescent green to deep purple. Beefaroni doesn’t look too bad but it too has bones. The smelly beefaroni oils seem to permeate through the skin for a few days, probably why Rikers smells like it.”
While many of the prison reviews you’ll find on Yelp are from the point of view of former inmates, some are aimed at friends and family. One of Yelp’s “Elite” reviewers, a lawyer named Paul W., dedicated a review to the subject of how to get in, and out, of Rikers as a visitor.
“When you are called, slowly but calmly approach the window. Say “hello, Officer” and show your driver’s licence and state your destination. Wait. Wait. Tell her your destination in the prison. Wait. Tell her your destination again in the prison. Wait. Get a hand stamp and a plastic square with a number and a building name on it. Say ‘thank you, Officer'”
Paul doesn’t editorialize with his Yelp review. It’s just the straight facts on how to get in and out of the prison with the least amount of hassle, but he makes his opinon clear with the rating.
One star. Sorry Rikers, but this is how you get stuck with a two and a half star overall rating on Yelp.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Yelp without a healthy dose of snark and jokes. Reviewer Allysa P. gave the prison a five star review.
“Great island getaway right in my own backyard.. Beautiful on a summer night with a great view of Manhattan’s famous skyline. The dinner is nothing less than 5 star. Insider tip– Thursday is chicken night and it’s to die for. Only a pop, squat and cough away.”
Other correctional facilities have fared much worse on Yelp than Rikers.
— karey dornetto (@kareydornetto) September 10, 2015
“The County of Los Angeles suggested I stay here for 3 days. Day 1 I witnessed a man get stabbed with a splintered chicken bone,” writes Chris S. of the dismally rated LA County Jail. “Miss those duchess honey buns though. Minus 4 stars for the ambiance. Plus one star for the honey buns.”
The review received three useful ratings and one cool rating. Eleven other Yelp users thought that that getting stabbed with a chicken bone was hilarious.
That’s a pretty grim sense of humor there, Yelp
Reuben Johnathan Miller, a sociologist with the University of Michigan, told the Marshall Project why people may feel driven to review prisons on Yelp and other similar sites.
“We’re in this space where having an opinion is rewarded,” Miller told the Marshall Project. It has to do with the “democratization of expertise,” according to the sociologist, and the way that sites like Yelp place experienced users on an equal footing with so-called experts.
Former inmates, family members, and even facility employees feel driven to share their experiences on Yelp in this environment.
Somehow, the trend of reviewing prisons on Yelp doesn’t seem like it will have the same effect as allowing you to review doctors and hospitals. But if just one future inmate at Rikers gets to enjoy the great chocolate pudding thanks to a Yelp review, maybe it was all worth it anyway.