by Marc Norton
Sometimes a particular fight weaves together so many strands of the oppressive fabric of the USA that it is difficult to figure out what is key and where to begin. Such is the case with the fight to free Bay View Newspaper editor Malik Washington from the clutches of the private, COVID-wracked “halfway-house” prison in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Systemic racism, the scourge of mass incarceration, private prisons, failure on the part of private companies and public officials to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic, and an assault on the people’s media all play a role in this fight.
Malik is the new editor of the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, which was founded in 1976 and proudly bills itself as a “voice of Black Liberation” and “the most visited Black newspaper on the web, second only to the Final Call.” The Bay View also produces a widely-distributed print version, many copies of which are sent to prisoners “behind enemy lines” around the country in the USA’s genocidal mass incarceration facilities.
Malik has been a resident since September 2020 of 111 Taylor St., a “transitional housing” facility run by the GEO Group. The GEO Group is a real estate investment trust that, among other things, runs private prisons contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, detention centers for undocumented workers, and mental health facilities. The company has been the target of numerous protests and lawsuits regarding its treatment of people supposedly under its care.
President Joe Biden recently issued an executive order to phase out the use of private prisons by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That is a step in the right direction, but it won’t come soon enough to solve Malik’s problems, or the problems of the other residents at 111 Taylor St.
On January 8, a notice was posted at 111 Taylor St. stating that “We have had a few residents and staff who have recently tested positive for the Covid-19.” The notice listed certain steps that the facility was taking in response to these positive tests.
However, I have seen no evidence that the facility reported this outbreak to either the San Francisco Department of Public Health, or the California Department of Public Health, as they are required to do by law. This outbreak clearly put everybody in danger at 111 Taylor St., residents and staff alike, as well as the surrounding community.
After the news of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tim Redmond, the editor of San Francisco’s popular online news site 48 Hills, spoke to Malik – a fellow San Francisco news editor – about the situation. As a result of Malik’s contact with Redmond, the 111 Taylor administrators gave Malik a disciplinary report for “Unauthorized Contact with the Public,” told him that he was not allowed to speak to the news media without written permission, extended the time before his release, confiscated his cell phone, and warned him that he might face further retaliation.
Where to begin? A Black man does what any sane person would do to protect his life and the life of the people he lives and works with – that is, get the word out about the danger they are facing – and gets punished for doing so. Meanwhile, the corporate masters at 111 Taylor St. are keeping mum about the danger. Racism has surely raised its ugly head here. Lack of concern for the lives of the incarcerated is evident as well. And the assault on the right of the people’s media, in this case both 48 Hills and the Bay View, is impossible to miss.
As a result of Malik’s contact with Redmond, the 111 Taylor administrators gave Malik a disciplinary report for “Unauthorized Contact with the Public,” told him that he was not allowed to speak to the news media without written permission, extended the time before his release, confiscated his cell phone, and warned him that he might face further retaliation.
To add insult to injury, 111 Taylor St. is the site of the historic Compton’s Cafeteria, where drag queens, trans women and gay hustlers – white and Black alike – fought back against a police raid in 1966, three years before the more famous Stonewall Uprising in New York.
Mary Ratcliff, the outgoing editor of the Bay View, called on the Bureau of Prisons to release Malik, instead of retaliating against him for exposing the 111 Taylor St. outbreak. “They want to silence this newspaper,” as well as Malik, Mary charges.
Malik’s fiancée has an apartment in the Bayview into which he can move whenever he is released. Malik has a job with the United Council of Human Services as a case manager with the homeless. He is currently scheduled to be released in May, unless COVID-19 or the prison authorities get him first.
Malik responded to this retaliation by filing a lawsuit challenging the restrictions placed on him, asking for an immediate restraining order against the Bureau of Prisons and the GEO Group. The next hearing on this lawsuit is currently scheduled for March 10.
Of course the issues at 111 Taylor Street go way beyond their treatment of Malik. Instead of trying to list all the underlying problems, I suggest the reader take a look at the short documentary released on Feb. 16 by The Defender, in coordination with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. I guarantee you that, after viewing this video, you will agree with Redmond that the place is “a mess.”
Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin district in which the “mess” which is 111 Taylor is situated, told 48 Hills:
“There’s a reason why so many around the country are calling to end all contracts with private-prison providers. The conditions inside that facility show a disregard for the health, safety and well-being of the people who live there. There clearly needs to be more oversight from the federal government and they should reconsider this contract altogether.”
It is great that Supervisor Haney and the Public Defender’s Office are weighing in. Now we need to hear from the rest of the city, state and federal government about this travesty in the Tenderloin.
Check in with the Malik Washington Defense Committee and join the rally on March 7 if you can. This is a fight about racism, about mass incarceration, private prisons, safety from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the defense of the people’s media.