by Ella Fassler
Nestled among a growing unhoused community in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, sits an unremarkable gray and stout building. However, life inside 111 Taylor St. is anything but normal.
At the 140-bed halfway house operated by private prison company GEO Group, detainees are only allowed to leave the premises for work. They are crammed into narrow, dorm-style rooms with anywhere from two to 14 other men, and speaking with the media may result in prison time.
COVID-19 exploited the government’s refusal to release people from detention, sweeping the shared rooms, bathrooms and dining areas of the Taylor Center, one of hundreds of similar federal Residential Reentry Management Centers (RRMCs) across the country.
Keith “Malik” Washington, editor in chief of national Black newspaper San Francisco Bay View and a detainee at the Taylor Center, has an apartment, job and fiance waiting for him in San Francisco.
As his release day approached after 13 years inside prison, Washington requested home confinement. But, while the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has released white, wealthy men such as Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen to their homes during the pandemic, requests from Black men like Washington have been denied.
Washington’s travels from the crowded halfway house and into the office put his coworkers at risk, including longtime Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff.
Ratcliff, who is 82 years old, stepped down from the paper after a breast cancer diagnosis, but her home is connected to the office.
“He has a home to go to,” Washington’s fiance Nube Brown told Shadowproof. “It’s a three minute walk from the Bay View. And he can’t go to it… That’s just inhumane.”
“They let him go to work. That just reduces a person to their productivity. It is so disgustingly capitalistic, it really speaks to the prison industrial slave complex.”
When Brown learned about the outbreak at Taylor, she said she wasn’t surprised. According to “One Eleven Taylor,” a new, eleven minute film that exposes conditions inside and outside the confinement center, the first individual to contract the virus was placed in a dorm room with people who hadn’t yet received a positive test result.
“In the beginning of all of this, we weren’t allowed to wear masks,” said the anonymous documentarian. “That was one of the conditions of my parole, that I can’t wear a mask.”
On January 8, in a non-confidential memorandum, the management of the facility alerted detainees that “a few residents and staff” had tested positive for COVID-19.
“This is the criminalization of an outspoken Black man, using his First Amendment rights, using his human right to speak, to be and live in his life, the way that he determines.”
Tim Redmond, founder of local news outlet 48 Hills learned about the outbreak from Washington and sent an inquiry to GEO Group Vice President for Communications of “GEO Care” Monica Hook. She told him that there weren’t any COVID-19 cases at Taylor Street. After Redmond showed her the Jan. 8 memo, Hook backtracked.
GEO Group retaliated against Washington with a disciplinary report under the violation “Unauthorized Contact with the Public.” The company confiscated his phone and revoked 14 days of “good time,” meaning his release date could be pushed back.
They also barred him from speaking to the media without written permission in a “News Interview Authorization Form,” which Brown described as criminalizing Black voices and Black journalism.
“This is the criminalization of an outspoken Black man, using his First Amendment rights, using his human right to speak, to be and live in his life, the way that he determines,” she said.
On Feb. 2, Washington held a virtual press conference on Zoom to announce his filing of a lawsuit against the BOP and GEO Group seeking the return of his cell phone, the restoration of his good time credits, and for the freedom to carry out his duties as editor in chief of SF Bay View.
The conduct of the government and GEO Group “directly chills and bars Plaintiff Washington’s exercise of his First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit says, “without reasonably advancing a legitimate correctional goal and, furthermore, directly contradicts the correctional goal of Plaintiff’s having been placed in his particular ‘work-release’ program at the Taylor Street Residential Reentry Center.”
The BOP retaliated against Washington for the press conference by charging him with “escape,” an allegation to be discussed with a federal judge in a public disciplinary hearing on Mar. 10 at 9:30 a.m. PST. Brown hopes to “pack the Zoom hearing to show the level of support that there is for Malik and the SF Bay View.”
Congress may be aware of the retaliation against Washington. On Jan. 12. The Government Accountability Office interviewed Washington and he told them his story.
The outbreak, cover-up and retaliation at Taylor is indicative of larger trends at halfway houses across the country, reporting from The Intercept shows.
Last April, GEO Group botched its response to outbreaks at several reentry facilities by confining people who had contracted the virus with those who hadn’t, which resulted in multiple deaths.
Several people at RRMCs told The Intercept they believed management was trying to keep their COVID-19 cases from the public. One man on the West Coast was ordered not to tell anyone about his results.
Meanwhile, GEO Group told investors it had implemented strict COVID-19 protocols. Following The Intercept’s reporting of the company’s “blundering response“ in September, investors filed a lawsuit against the company alleging it made false and misleading statements.
The profitability of crowded conditions prior to the pandemic set the stage for mass death. Since funding from the government flows in accordance with the number of people in confinement centers, nonprofits and companies operating halfway houses have an incentive to cram as many people as possible into small spaces.
State-run carceral complexes have not responded with any more grace. By December, The Marshall Project reported that at least one in five incarcerated people had contracted COVID-19 – both a frightening number and a dramatic undercount. Just 8 percent of the prison population is confined in private facilities.
Throughout the pandemic, the BOP has been transferring incarcerated people across the country – including on flights to Puerto Rico – without personal protective equipment.
Brown supports Malik’s plight to expose the BOP and GEO Group, describing his integrity as sexy, but she fears the worst.
“We must ensure that the truth gets told to protect the vulnerable.”
“The possibility that he could be returned to prison … the anxiety is real,” Brown said. “Malik is willing to do this [speak out], but there is a cost. Even just talking to you right now, my stomach is tight again.”
“This is the man that I love. And I don’t want him to go back to prison, because I have seen what prison has done to him.”
Washington’s ample public support manifested in a rally of 200 people and over a dozen endorsements from local organizations on March 7.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin sent a letter to be read at the rally. It argued for freedom of the press.
“The last four years have shown the need for ensuring that people, especially those in the press, are free and able to tell truth to power … (I)t is especially concerning when people like Malik Washington, who are devoted to truth-telling, are targeted precisely for trying to ensure that critical information is made public,” Boudin said. “We must ensure that the truth gets told to protect the vulnerable.”
Organizers and supporters similarly demanded press freedom for Black journalism, alongside demands for Washington’s release and for ending all contracts with GEO Group in California. Despite the Biden administration’s executive order to end contracts with private prisons, there aren’t plans to close RRMCs.
Brown also made clear that their organizing isn’t just about Washington. “It’s about exposing what happens to people who speak up,” she told Shadowproof. “It’s about the thousands, millions of people going through this and their families.”
Ella Fassler is an independent writer and researcher based in Rhode Island. Her work has been featured in The Nation, The Appeal, Slate, OneZero, Truthout and elsewhere. This story originally appeared on Shadowproof and is republished with permission.