Washington and his fiancee. Photo courtesy of SF Bay View.

When Keith “Malik” Washington, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay View, got word of a Covid-19 outbreak at the transitional housing facility he is detained in on Jan. 9, he took that news to journalist Tim Redmond, who then started investigating the situation.

One day later, the retaliation began: He alleges that the Taylor Street Center confiscated his cell phone, prevented him from leaving the center to work, and told him he could not contact members of the media — including his colleagues — without receiving permission from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Now, he’s taking legal action. On Monday, Washington sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons and for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, Inc., which runs the Taylor Street Center, alleging retaliation for bringing attention to the Covid outbreak.

The facility, at 111 Taylor St. in the Tenderloin, serves as a halfway house for inmates who can spend the last days of their sentence there instead of in a prison (like prisons, halfway houses operated by GEO Group are paid by the inmate, on top of a base sum). Washington has lived there since his release from a federal prison in September. He is required to stay at the Taylor Street Center until May to finish his federal requirements. 

“[GEO Group] has enacted a scheme with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to violate not just my first-amendment rights, but the first-amendment rights of this amazing national Black newspaper that has been in this community for 45 years,” he said at a press conference.

Washington is seeking an injunction that would reverse the disciplinary charges against him and prohibit any further retaliation against him for bringing attention to the outbreak.

More retaliation for his presence at Tuesday’s press conference might be forthcoming, according to Washington. Already, the discipline for speaking to a reporter has extended his eligibility for home confinement, as well as his final release day, according to Richard Tan, Washington’s lawyer. 

The case comes amid moves on the state and federal level to phase out such facilities on the grounds that they mistreat incarcerated people and have a profit incentive to keep inmates incarcerated. California will phase out the use of for-profit private detention facilities by 2028. And, last Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed executive orders to end Justice Department contracts with private prisons. 

GEO Group, which operates one of the largest prison networks in the country, has come under fire for allegedly coercing detainees to work for a dollar a day, not protecting inmates from gang violence and unsanitary conditions, among other charges.

Indeed, Tan said,  “A developing COVID-19 outbreak in the heart of San Francisco is a serious public health concern. We believe that Mr. Washington was entitled to expose that outbreak, and that he was right to do so.”

Tan is pursuing the case as a first-amendment violation for retaliation against Washington’s free speech. The lawsuit alleges that Maria Richard, director of the Taylor Center, told Washington that if he had not brought public attention to this outbreak then the retaliation would not have happened.

The phone numbers listed for Taylor Center were disabled. Richard declined to comment, referring Mission Local to GEO Group’s Media Line. The Media Line did not respond to a request for comment.

The case has also drawn the attention of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, which is standing with Washington. “As public defenders, we continue to be disturbed by GEO Group’s pattern of neglect and deceit in its response to the COVID pandemic — both at its immigration detention facilities and at the Taylor Street reentry center — and have worked tirelessly to get our clients released from these facilities,” stated public defender Mano Raju in a press release.

Washington has written for the Bay View for eight years; he began working for the publication while incarcerated in Texas. He was released from federal prison in September, and when he is done with his federal requirements in May, he plans to leave the Taylor Center to live with his fiancée in the Bayview. 

Mary Ratcliff, the outgoing editor of the Bay View, said the publication has been a leader in moving forward the national conversation about abolishing for-profit prisons. Their work may have drawn the ire of GEO Group: “They want to silence this newspaper, and they certainly want to silence this new editor, who has way more energy and way more personal experience with this issue,” she said. 

GEO Group was not forthcoming about details of the outbreak. According to 48 Hills, Redmond’s publication, a spokesperson initially told a reporter that there were no cases at Taylor Center, later reversing that statement to say that at least three people have tested positive, but didn’t provide more specifics beyond that. 

“If you go onto the internet and search for information about this outbreak, the only information that you will find is information that Mr. Washington was responsible for in some way,” Tan said.

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