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The Bot That Automatically Faxes Prisons Their Shitty Yelp Reviews

When a hotel gets a bad Yelp review, it fines the reviewer. What happens when a prison gets a bad Yelp review?
Image: Yelp Prison Review Faxbot

When a hotel gets a bad Yelp review, it fines the reviewer. What happens when a prison gets a bad Yelp review?

We aren't really sure what the answer to that is, but two coders in New York City are determined to find out. Sam Lavigne and Fletcher Bach created the Yelp Prison Review Faxbot, which is exactly what it sounds like. Every time one of 12 prisons around the country gets Yelp reviews (a thing that does happen), their script will automatically fax it to the prison's guards.


"We had never seen that prisons have Yelp pages, and we thought, well, if we haven't seen it, then the prisons probably haven't seen it either," Lavigne told me. "The idea is to like, make them face the feedback of the people they've got in there."

It's a stunt, yes, but you never know—maybe someone at the Willacy Detention Center will see that prisoners there have a "fear of rape by guards [and] getting taken to a dark corner and beaten" and will institute some sort of change.

Image: Yelp Prison Review Faxbot

"Obviously I have no expectation this thing we're doing is going to have any real change over this massive terrible system we have in place that's so awful that it's being expressed in Yelp reviews," Lavigne said. "But anytime something addresses this problem even a little bit, I think it's valuable."

So, why faxes and not emails? Because faxes are something of a joke at this point, and because it's cool to take an outdated technology, apply some simple code to it, and turn it into a technology that's relevant again. Plus, while it's easy to skip over an email, it's kind of hard to ignore a fax machine showing up.

"Faxes are harder to ignore than an email, and it's funnier," he said. "The fact that you can even do this is kind of cool."

The original idea was sort of inspired by "black faxes," a kind of forbearer to the DDoS attacks that are so popular today, in which people would send long faxes that were colored completely black, thereby wasting a company's or government's ink and tying up their fax machines for a while.

To start, Lavigne and Bach sent one old Yelp review to each prison—from now on, whenever a new review is left, it'll be automatically sent to prisons that both have a Yelp page and have easily accessible fax machine numbers.

For now, they're going to stick to faxes, but they're looking into automated snail mail systems as well and hope to eventually expand the number of prisons included.

"As you can guess, there's not a huge amount of overlap between prisons that have fax numbers and prisons that have Yelp reviews," he said. "We haven't gotten any responses yet, but the program we use can tell that they've gotten them."