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San Francisco, Calif., Jan. 27, 2021 – Keith “Malik” Washington is the editor of the San Francisco Bay View, a national Black newspaper known for its coverage of prison issues as well as provocative political analysis and activism. The newspaper has been serving the Bay Area for 45 years.
On Jan. 9, 2021, Washington contacted a reporter about a COVID-19 outbreak at the halfway house where he is currently housed. Known as the Taylor Street Center, it is located in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The Taylor Street Center is operated by the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group.
On Jan. 26, President Joe Biden, in one of his first steps to address racial inequity, ordered the Justice Department to revert to the Obama administration’s ban on contracting with private prisons. During the Trump era, GEO Group was repeatedly in the news because of its mistreatment and abuse of undocumented people at their detention centers throughout the United States.
The Trump administration provided cover and a shield of protection for private prison corporations like GEO Group from legal actions. This case illustrates what lengths both the U.S. government and their private prison partners will go to in order to silence the voices of those in their care who cry foul when their rights are violated.
The reporter Washington contacted about the COVID-19 outbreak was Tim Redmond, longtime editor of the Bay Guardian and founder of its successor, 48hills. Redmond and Washington regularly converse about local news and current events.
Redmond, after receiving the tip from Washington, contacted Monica Hook, vice president of communications for GEO Care Inc. From the onset of the communication, Hook denied the existence of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Taylor Street Center. Considering the danger posed to the public by a COVID-19 in the middle of San Francisco, Hook’s actions are extremely disturbing.
Hook pressed Redmond to reveal the source of his information. After Redmond showed Hook a Twitter post that included a memo from administrators at the Taylor Street Center informing residents of a COVID outbreak at the facility, Hook finally conceded that the information Redmond had received was accurate, but she continued to press him for the identity of his source.
Retaliation against Washington began the next day, on Jan. 10, 2021. At approximately 3:00 p.m., a GEO Group employee at the Taylor Street Center informed Washington that Facility Director Maria Richard had rescinded permission for him to attend a press conference that the SF Bay View had sponsored and organized to address systemic racism in the San Francisco Health Service System. Washington’s case manager, Belief Iruayenama, spoke with Washington about the change in plans: “I don’t know what is going on, Washington. This was Maria’s decision.”
On the morning of Jan. 11, 2021, Facility Director Maria Richard prevented Washington from leaving the center to work at the SF Bay View. Richard informed him that his cell phone would be confiscated for 30 days. More importantly, Maria Richard stated that Washington could not contact any of his colleagues or friends in the media without receiving special permission from federal Bureau of Prisons officials in Washington, D.C.
An hour later, another Taylor Street Center employee, William Gomez, came to Washington’s room and confiscated his cell phone that he uses for work. Washington has numerous media, political and personal contacts on his phone that aid him in the performance of his job as editor of the historic SF Bay View National Black Newspaper.
Gomez told Washington he could not get his phone back nor could he use anyone else’s phone to contact anyone outside the facility. All of these acts of retaliation were visited upon Washington because he contacted a news reporter. However, this was only the beginning.
On the morning of Jan. 11, 2021, Facility Director Maria Richard prevented Washington from leaving the center to work at the SF Bay View. Richard directed Washington to a conference room at the facility and informed him that his cell phone would be confiscated for 30 days. More importantly, Maria Richard stated that Washington could not contact any of his colleagues or friends in the media without receiving special permission from federal Bureau of Prisons officials in Washington, D.C.
It is noteworthy that since Washington’s release from federal prison in September 2020, he has been on numerous radio programs, both local and nationally syndicated. Washington has attended press conferences both physical and virtual and he has fulfilled the duties of an editor of a major publication.
None of this was a problem for Maria Richard until the COVID outbreak at the Taylor Street Center. Richard threatened Washington with prison should he continue his contact with his colleagues and friends in the media. This is not the first time that Richard has used the threat of prison in order to curb Washington’s contact with the media.
Washington received a disciplinary write up for “Unauthorized Contact with the Public.” The evidence presented was a short text message exchange between Tim Redmond and Washington, referenced in Redmond’s article published in 48hills.
Washington has retained the services of attorney Richard Tan, who commented: “Mr. Washington was retaliated against for exercising his rights, under the First Amendment and the Free Speech Clause of the California Constitution, to speak about a COVID outbreak in the heart of San Francisco – an outbreak which is still ongoing. We will be filing a complaint in federal court seeking an injunction reversing the disciplinary charges against Mr. Washington and prohibiting any further retaliation against him.”
Washington served a total of 13 years in both federal and state prisons for robbing a bank with a note. Washington stated: “When I was in the throes of my drug and alcohol addiction, I would rob banks in order to fund my habit. I now have been clean and sober for well over 13 years and have been totally clean since my release. I changed my life drastically and it would not have been possible without the support of Dr. Willie Ratcliff and Mary Ratcliff, the publishers of the SF Bay View.”
Washington began writing for the SF Bay View approximately eight years ago while incarcerated in Texas. He became a nationally known activist and journalist. Approximately a year ago, Washington and Mary Ratcliff agreed that he would come to San Francisco upon his release from prison to learn what was necessary to become the editor of the SF Bay View. Long serving editor Mary Ratcliff is 81 years old and was elated that she had finally found her replacement. Now she fears interference by the BOP and GEO Group:
“By restricting our new editor’s free speech and forcing him to stay in a congregate penal facility, GEO Group and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons are delivering death sentences to my husband and me. Not only are we both in our 80s, but we both are in our final years of terminal illnesses – metastatic breast cancer in my case – and could not survive a COVID attack. We need every day we have left to help our new editor succeed.
“The fact that he is exposed to COVID daily in a congregate penal facility – although he fully qualifies for home confinement and has a home to live in three minutes from our office – is threatening our lives. Confiscating his work cellphone prevents him from doing his job. To silence him from publicly speaking on current issues violates the Bay View newspaper’s constitutional right to freedom of the press.”
A last point that clearly doesn’t seem to matter to either GEO Group or the BOP is the inhumanity of their actions. Keith Washington has a home and a loved one to go to. In a letter to BOP director Michael Carvajal, Tracy Brown, Keith’s fiancée states:
“I don’t see how the BOP can claim to support the people in their care and truly wish for their success if they hinder one of the most important tenets of a successful return: the building and maintaining of family ties. Here’s another point, Mr. Carvajal. Keith has employment and he is sober. So why at the end of a long, productive day must he go back to you, while I’m at home alone? Keith and I are both left without the benefit of each other. This can’t be what the BOP intends when they speak of rehabilitation and successful reentry, is it?”
It seems that the Trump administration has created the conditions in which for-profit prison corporations like GEO Group assume they have the support and cover to ignore the constitutional rights of anyone in their care. Washington has quickly become a respected member of this community, and the retaliation against him is unacceptable. Private corporations like the GEO Group have no business running prisons in San Francisco. Their contracts should be cancelled.
Bay View Editor Keith “Malik” Washington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.