A few years back, Jennifer Vekris says she was prescribed the sleeping pill Ambien for insomnia. It took her a while to figure out that the drug was affecting her in dangerous ways. “I'd wake up to car damage, bruises, fast-food wrappers, and who knows what else, because I was sleeping and driving,” she says. Twice, she woke up in jail. One of those times, she was charged with a DWI.
When she got home, she turned to a place she knew she’d be understood: Yelp.
“So, one morning, I wake up next to a girl in the big house. It took a minute to realize where I was, and I started asking the girl questions,” Vekris wrote in a review of the Travis County Jail in Austin, Texas. “My Cellie told me I was in jail, and then she started crying. I asked why, and she said she had to poop. That's cool, whatever, do it. So she sits on the silver toilet, pooping and crying, and apologizing to me.” Twenty-six people marked the review “useful” and 22 thought it was “cool.”
“I reviewed jail on Yelp because I couldn't afford a therapist,” Vekris says.
User-review sites have become an unlikely destination for raw, informative accounts of Americans’ everyday interactions with our criminal justice system. Yelp declined to provide the number of prison and jail reviews on its site, but dozens of correctional facilities are filed under “Public Services & Government” alongside DMVs and post offices. Search for your local prison or jail and chances are that Google reviews will pop up alongside more traditional hits. (Even TripAdvisor once hosted a lively debate about whether a tourist visit to Sing Sing Correctional Facility or Rikers Island would be ethical, if such a thing were allowed.)
“We’re in this space where having an opinion is rewarded,” says Reuben Jonathan Miller, a University of Michigan sociologist. Pair the “democratization of expertise” with the ubiquity of the criminal justice system in the last two decades, says Miller, and you get people like Jason A. taking to the internet to share their experiences in lockup.
“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,” he wrote in a 1-star review of Rikers. “Food tasted like wet noodles and grill gristle…. 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.”
The vast majority of online reviewers are former inmates, loved ones returning from visits with friends and family, and law-and-order types (“I am rating this prison with an ‘Excellent’ rating because not only are these animals where they belong, but are also guarded by the best of the best”). Reviews run the gamut in tone and purpose, from snarky (“A California judge recommended this place to me. He even arranged free transportation.”) to helpful (“IF you're a junkie, or sick: SPEAK UP! Your paperwork WILL continue to move along.”) to a curious blend of the two (“I learned a lot at summer camp as a child but if you REALLY want to learn skills you can use, you NEED to go to jail”).
In reviewing the Wayne County Jail, Athena Kolbe, a Detroit social worker, says her aim was twofold: first, she wanted potential visitors to “be prepared for it mentally when you go into it.” Second, “when you come out of it, know that all that disrespect you experienced, everybody else is also experiencing that. It’s not just you.”
Victoria Ramos logged onto Yelp when she returned from a trip to California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi to visit her brother. “Visited May 16 2015 but was not able to visit with my sibling,” she wrote in a 3-star review. “Apparently my white pants were to [sic] tight and my black top was see through. They offered to let me borrow sweats and a t-shirt but i declined. I love my sibling and drove 2 hours from Pasadena to visit with him, but no thanks.”
Ramos had checked Yelp before her visit to find out what to expect, and had been disappointed not to find any useful information. “I also looked at the [California Department of Corrections] website about how you should dress. I searched and searched and couldn’t find anything,” she told The Marshall Project. She posted her review, she said, to save others from the type of experience she had during her visit. “Maybe I would have went in the proper attire if I would have read a review similar to mine.”
Some reviews are earnest attempts to make sense of a complicated experience. “Well it's my old home,” begins one Google review of Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s notorious supermax prison. Jason Bowlin’s 2-star entry includes a long list of friends he left behind. “Lol much love to you all. much pain has been handed to Your families from the choices we make. The bay is an evil place to live and a sad place to think about but my boys are there and my respect goes to you all.”
The sole Google review for Texas’s infamous Willacy Detention Center (recently the site of a major riot resulting from inmate abuse and mistreatment), says simply, “no puedo describirla”: I cannot describe it.
In contrast, a recent Google review of Cook County Jail — known for its large proportion of mentally ill inmates — begins, “I actually like this place.” Derrick Alexander continued, “well division 11 protective custody was nice. I'm a gay male and it was my first time at cook county jail so I was informed that [protective custody, a wing for vulnerable populations] would be a good choice. I miss it.” When we reached out to ask if he was serious, Alexander wrote back, “Serious as a heart attack.” He described fashion shows and sexual liaisons among men making the best of their time. “I heard some bad stories about what goes on behind the walls,” he told The Marshall Project. “But as far as what I seen, what I witnessed, what I went through, it was OK for what it was.”
For a series of low-level felonies like assault and forgery, Alexander served time in prisons and jails in three states over the course of five years. Once he got home, he systematically reviewed each one. “I know a lot of people when they’re incarcerated, they complain about everything,” he says. “So I took the time, now that I’m not in jail, I feel like my voice can make a difference.” Alexander said the Boone County Jail in Columbia, Missouri was “decent” — 3-stars — but called out the Western Illinois Correctional Center — 1 star: “The prison guards are racist and they treat you like little kids. (If you let them).”
As for Jennifer Vekris, she gave the Travis County Jail 4 stars, despite having been yelled at for asking for extra blankets and for not eating. (“I was not about to point to the mustard and ham sandwich, and say, ‘Um, excuse me, prison warden lady? Yeah, sorry, do you have any vegan entrees?’" she wrote in her review.)
“Jail did its job for me: scared the hell out of me, so I will never go back, and I'll never take Ambien again either,” Vekris told The Marshall Project. “So four stars for a great place that fulfilled its promises that were advertised.”