Lawyer Robert Miller has visited five prisons and 17 jails in his lifetime, but he has reviewed only three of them on Yelp. One he found “average,” with inexperienced and power-hungry officers. Another he faulted for its “kind of very firmly rude staff.” His most recent review, a January critique of Theo Lacy jail in Orange County, Calif., lauds the cleanliness, urban setting and “very nice” deputies.
Miller gave it five out of five stars.
The problem is that few people pick their jails. Five stars. One star. Whatever.
As Miller acknowledges, it’s not the kind of helpful testimonial commonly found on Yelp, the popular consumer reviews site many people turn to for recommendations on, say, bowling alleys and Chinese takeout. But as Yelp grows more popular — logging 36 million reviews as of last quarter — lawyers as well as prison inmates and their family members have turned to the site to report mediocre food and allegations of serious abuse. They join the enterprising reviewers who have used Yelp to critique traffic signals and public bathrooms.
While it can be informative if a family member wants to know just how bad, or not so bad, the life of their loved one is going in the can, it’s not the same as Chinese takeout. But it struck me as to whether this was the new wave of communication, the new way to complain even if there was no choice involved.
This stuck on my radar because of a post at an anonymous blog called Unclean Hands about how the families of prisoners were treated by the guards when visiting their loved ones. The author writes of a young grandmother and her two young grandchildren, presumably going to visit the daughter/mother, while the writer, a lawyer, observed as she waited for a prison visit.
The three waited at the metal detector for Officer Tackleberry, who ignored them for at least 15 minutes while pretending to shuffle papers and talk to B. and me. I squirmed as Tackleberry was so polite and kind to us, and again explained that the whole prison goes to shit when she takes a day off. I looked over at the family, trying to catch their eyes to silently apologize for being white, for being a lawyer, for wearing a suit, and for being treated nicely. We got friendly chit-chat. They got rude, sharp, and exasperated barks.
Finally, Officer Tackleberry made her way over to the metal detectors to inspect the family. The little girl, dressed all in pink with cute, freshly-done twists in her hair, went too quickly after her brother, almost skipping through. The entire family was forced to go back through the metal detectors one by one as punishment.
Neither the grandmother nor grandchildren were guilty of anything beyond caring for someone inside, and yet the guard treated them like subhuman garbage, a nuisance to be dismissed at best. The author simultaneously felt the anger any caring and rational person would feel about the needlessly poor handling of human beings, while feeling the guilt of being a lawyer, receiving the preferential treatment that institutions tend to provide. It’s not that lawyers are treated well, but not nearly as offensively as nonlawyers.
While in the waiting room, I felt humiliated. Later, when I was inside the visitor’s room saying goodbye to my client, I saw the little girl dressed in pink on her mom’s lap, the mom dazed and crying, rocking her baby girl tightly. Then, the anger socked me in the gut. Not only is these children’s mother in a maximum security prison–G-d knows what happened to get her there and what it did to them, not only are these kids without her on a daily basis, but in order to get to see her, they must go to a scary prison every time and be yelled at, humiliated and debased. This seven year old and eleven year old know more about the system than I do.
Some lawyers are obliged to visit jails and prisons on a regular basis, and they tend to both know “the ways” of the particular institution and often even the personnel. It’s useful to smooth the process, which is usually terribly time-consuming (read wasteful) and unpleasant. But what lawyers endure is nothing compared to what families endure, what children endure.
Even lawyers play nice with guards. Getting on the wrong side of a guard can make things far worse. The delay in getting in can be counted in minutes or hours, and that’s at the guard’s discretion. They may have rules about such things, but piss off a guard and watch as names can’t be found, papers get lost, communications are missed, and you sit there and wait. And wait. And what are you going to do about it? Leave and go to another, more amenable prison?
Despite their treatment, the grandmother and her charges have no choice but to silently endure the idiocy, the abuse, the discourtesy of the guards. To be fair, it’s not always that way, and I’ve seen guards treat visitors as with relative kindness. But if they want to be abusive, there is no one to stop them. And if the visitors don’t care to suffer the abuse, too bad. There is no place else to go, no place to complain.
Maybe they can leave a review on Yelp about the prison, urging people not to be warehoused there for the duration of their sentence. Or maybe the message is that if a loved one is imprisoned, abandon them rather than have to tolerate the discourteous guards. Go to a nice restaurant instead.