Screenshot of L.A. County Jail's Yelp review.
SACRAMENTO — 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 armchair critics, he wasn't rating a restaurant or 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 scores of reviews for places where very few want to go — California's jails and prisons, from San Diego to San Quentin.
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 resident, a machine operator, stumbled upon the reviews after his release and decided to offer 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.
One former inmate of San Francisco County jail posted a bit of guidance for those who might follow in her footsteps. Asking not to be identified out of concern for her reputation, she said she spent two separate nights in the facility for "alcohol-related experiences."
"I comically wrote about my experience to impart some wisdom and to maybe help someone worried about a loved one, someone who has had a similar experience, or someone who may inadvertently find themselves there," she said in an email to The Times.
In a review laced with sarcasm, she assigned the jail three stars in October: "I give two props to the dining service. I got not one but TWO milks, and an extra pair of socks to use as hand mittens."
But "don't smile during your mug shot they don't happen to particularly like that."
Folsom Prison also gets 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.
Serra Smith used to pass San Quentin twice a day as she commuted to her nearby job as a nurse. "Thanks for keeping the bad guys all locked up with million dollar views of San Francisco and the Bay!" she quipped in February of last year.
She said the prime location must be torture for inmates. "They're teased by the beautiful view," she said in an interview. "And they're caged in."
Gregory T. jokingly touted the prisons' amenities in August 2010.
"Once inside your newly renovated prison unit," he wrote, "you will enjoy updated, flat metal backed matresses, close-by toilet, concrete flooring, dank lighting, community showers, and you will enjoy inviting friends or family over for visitation."
Other posts have praised a public affairs officer for being a good tour guide and warned off potential lawbreakers ("This is not a place you wanna end up," wrote scott d. in May 2009).
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."