Even the 'graybar hotels' get reviewed on Yelp

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 6, 2013 

— Ruben Switzer wasn’t happy with his accommodations at a well-known Los Angeles establishment, so he went online to vent.

“Service sucks,” he wrote. “Food sucks.”

Switzer posted his thoughts on Yelp, the popular review website. But unlike many of his fellow critics, he wasn’t rating a restaurant or a hotel. He was reviewing the Los Angeles County Jail, and he gave it one star.

Typically, Yelp users are deciding where to go for dinner or stay on vacation. But there are also reviews for places where very few want to go –jails and prisons.

The postings are sprinkled with ruminations on life as an inmate, criticism of the state’s criminal justice policies and humorous riffs on the lack of high-class furnishings. It’s impossible to know the source of many reviews. Some may be posted illegally from behind bars, where smartphones and Internet access are mostly outlawed. Others are put up by inmates after they’re freed, or by people who have never done time.

Yelp users can weigh in on all kinds of places – taco trucks, hiking trails, the local post office – as long as they have a physical location, said spokeswoman Kristen Whisenand. Not allowed: opinions on “my ex-boyfriend, the weather, cats, etc.,” she said in an email.

The Los Angeles County Jail has garnered 19 reviews, most along the lines of Switzer’s and one from Bobby S. in September 2007: “I can’t think of a worse place to spend Thanksgiving and Xmas.”

Switzer spent a few weeks behind bars in early 2010 after police suspected him of driving under the influence. He said the charge didn’t stick. Court records show he was placed on probation for driving with a suspended license.

The 35-year-old Whittier, Calif., resident, a machine operator, stumbled upon the reviews after his release and decided to add his own.

He complained about the food and criticized the officers, his fellow inmates and the lack of cleanliness. “Addicts kicking and throwing up,” he wrote in March 2010. “Tweekers coming off of it going berserko.”

Switzer, whose Yelp handle is “Thug J.,” said in a telephone interview that “no one’s happy going to jail, but it doesn’t need to be the way it is.”

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, defended the jail’s operation but added: “There’s no denying that jail is going to be a very difficult experience.”

“If you find a jail that gets a five-star rating along the lines of a Sheraton on Maui, that may not be the jail that the county wants,” Whitmore said.

Folsom Prison received three stars, in an upbeat post by Yelp user Rachel M., who said her brother was there. Despite a long wait, the “visiting room was large and spacious,” she wrote in June 2010.

( San Quentin, the oldest prison in the state and the only one with a death row, has garnered 36 reviews, more than any other California lockup.

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said officials there had no idea the prisons were being ranked on Yelp.

“Clearly, many of these reviews are tongue and cheek, but as one reviewer wrote, San Quentin is ‘no joke,’ ” she said in a statement. “Out of respect for the victims of the people incarcerated there, we do not trivialize what prisons are and why they exist.”

She also had some advice for those dissatisfied with Big House lodgings: “If you don’t like it, don’t go back to prison.”

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