Remember that epic scene in HBO’s Newsroom when Will McAvoy aka Pete Williams unloaded some truth to the fictitious national audience? Here’s a quote from the righteous rant penned by Aaron Sorkin:
…there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in labor force and number 4 in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.
The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. The International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King’s College London estimated in 2010 that the total number showed 2,266,832 prisoners from a total population of 310.64 million, or 730 out of every 100,000. Racial components are at play as well; black males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents. Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents.
Within the prisons themselves, mistreatment is rampant and inmates have historically lived bereft of opportunities to seek redress. Most states don’t have oversight procedures legislatively certified to address mistreatment within prisons, meaning that most instances go unheard.
The burgeoning website Yelp earns roughly 36 million reviews a quarter, and while many people turn to the site for recommendations for off-the-path dive bars and unique restaurants, lawyers, inmates and their families have been turning to the site to report mediocre food and allegations of serious abuse.
Lawyers from California and Illinois have complained about security procedures that stop them from seeing clients. A woman in Austin alleged that workers in a local jail threatened her with bolt-cutters and tied her to a chair for hours without bathroom breaks. One reviewer claimed a Seattle jail did not return the money he had with him when he entered.
“This was the worst experience of my life and I am a combat veteran from Iraq,” wrote another Seattle reviewer. “I would rather re-live Basic and the evil Drill Sergeant’s. I would rather be in the box.”
Despite the fact that some of the Yelp prison reviews are seen as weird novelties, where career criminals find avenues for complaining about the abysmal states they find themselves in, the reviews could help bring about some positive changes for the US prison system. A 1996 law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act stipulates that inmates cannot sue over prison conditions, or really seek any redress, until they have “exhausted” administrative procedures, and they can ask for only limited changes to prison policy. All the while – since most prisons don’t have oversight measures in place – inmates have to be wary that any false step could find them at the mercy of the same guards they’re seeking to expose.
Prison mistreatment extends to each and every state. In New York, for instance, 60 prisons and about 55,000 anonymous inmates are surveyed by the Correctional Association each year, during which serious problems are uncovered, from mentally ill patients sent, inappropriately, to solitary confinement to outright instances of forced starvation and physical abuse.
Anytime an institution that has historically enjoyed limited oversight and substantial autonomy suddenly begins to be exposed, albeit incrementally, it’s a good thing. The Yelp reviews alone won’t affect change – many of them are seen as unreliable and vindictive – but small steps to bring transparency to a system historically predicated on limited transparency, is a good start.