By Layla Mustafa
SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Malik Washington, the San Francisco Bay View editor who garnered much attention in the Bay Area and beyond for exposing a COVID-19 outbreak at Taylor Street Halfway House, has been forced to remain silent while facing the threat of disciplinary sanctions and potential re-incarceration by the GEO Group and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
In January 2021, Washington was retaliated against after speaking out about a COVID-19 outbreak at the Taylor Street Center—a halfway house for those exiting prisons or jails and integrating into society. Washington, a resident of the house, had shared a posted notice of a COVID outbreak with a fellow journalist, Tim Redmond of 48 Hills.
The posted notice indicated to residents that at least three people had tested positive for the virus and included a new set of regulations for residents of the facility. The SF Bay View distributed a press release on the outbreak, and Redmond reached out to GEO Group to comment on the accusations—which they initially denied. Since then, Washington has experienced a wave of retaliation from both GEO and the BOP.
Initially, Washington was prevented from going to work and had his phone and technology confiscated under the Inmate Discipline Program. Under this program, the Federal Bureau of Prisons CODE 327 says that “unauthorized contacts with the public” is a prohibited act of moderate severity and may include loss of privileges and personal property.
Washington and local advocacy groups argue that not only is this punishment an encroachment of his First Amendment Right, but the sentiment is also very dangerous to the larger community. Washington was trying to warn the surrounding neighborhood of the outbreak for their safety. Nationally, GEO Group has had a bad track record in upholding transparency on the state of COVID at their facilities.
On February 2, Washington held a press conference to officially announce a lawsuit he was pursuing against the BOP and GEO Group. Washington filed the lawsuit as a vehicle to reclaim his cell phone, restore his good-time credits, and regain his freedom to act as editor-in-chief of the SF Bay View.
Following the press conference, GEO officials investigated several public appearances made by Washington prior to the conference. This information was used against him, claiming it was a violation of his disciplinary sanctions.
Many groups have risen to show their support for Washington. Both the San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju and the District Attorney Chesa Boudin have agreed that Washington has been persecuted for speaking out against the facility.
In a statement shared with Nube Brown, Managing Editor of the SF Bay View, Public Defender Mano Raju said, “We continue to witness GEO Group’s pattern of deceit and neglect in its response to the COVID pandemic. We must protect the health and dignity of the people living at 111 Taylor and invest in future reentry care that is community-based and focused on the needs of individuals, not the profits of GEO Group. I stand in solidarity with Malik Washington and for his rights as a member of the Black press to speak out and protect his community.”
Additionally, in a letter read during the March 7 rally in support of Washington, DA Boudin said, “The last four years have shown the need for enduring that people – especially those in the press – are free and able to tell truth to power. It is deeply 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. We must stand against attempts to target or prevent people like Malik from speaking out.”
The rally, organized by the Malik Defense Committee, took place in front of the Taylor Street Center on March 7. 60 people rallied in support of Washington’s freedom, and demanded for his release to home confinement until his sentence ends in May.
On a larger scale, those in attendance also called for California to end their contracts with GEO Group. GEO’s profit is dependent on the residents in their facility—in order to be most profitable the facility needs to maintain full capacity. Many argue GEO’s profit incentive sullies any effort towards resident rehabilitation. Since rehabilitation results in the exit of residents from the facility, it therefore would decrease GEO’s overall earnings.
On March 10, Washington and the SF Bay View went to federal court for the lawsuit they filed which alleged BOP and GEO’s denial of Washington’s First Amendment Rights. It was expected that the BOP planned to repudiate Washington’s claims by charging him with “escape” for his press conference.
Washington hoped that the federal court appearance would help him gain more freedom to discuss his situation with media outlets. Thus far, Washington has been subjected to a rule that has silenced much of his contact with the press. In what Nube Brown described as a “gag rule,” 111 Taylor mandates that a “News Interview Authorization Form” must be filed and approved before residents can contact members of the press.
Unfortunately for the Washington campaign, federal Judge Jon S. Tigar refused to block the BOP and GEO Group from imposing sanctions on Washington and upheld the gag order against him.
According to the SF Bay View, “a lawyer for the BOP said that part of his concern was that after press coverage and political organizing around the case, Washington was ‘gaining notoriety’ that could be bad for Taylor Center, the private halfway house in the Tenderloin.”
Washington’s defense argued that Washington’s actions to speak on the events unfolding at Taylor were out of his concern for residents and surrounding community members who may have gone unaware of the outbreak.
After all, the Taylor Center has only been “gaining notoriety” in the press because of their egregious mishandling of the virus, along with their overall lack of transparency in the status of their facility and health of their residents.
In addition to defending Washington’s motives, Washington’s attorney, Richard Tan, maintained that Washington had no part in planning the rally that was held on March 7 and that he has made no attempt to hide his location from GEO or the BOP.
Judge Tigar cited procedural issues as a reasoning for his refusal. According to the SF Bay View, Tigar questioned “whether, for example, Washington had exhausted all ‘administrative remedies’ before going to court.”
GEO Group had delayed a scheduled disciplinary hearing for Washington until after the March 10 ruling. Now that the ruling has been made, the hearing will take place and GEO could potentially “wipe out Washington’s ability to go to work, refuse to return his cell phone, eliminate the ‘good time’ he has earned – and potentially send him back to prison.”
If you would like to stay updated on the Malik Washington story as well as the Washington Defense Fund’s calls to action, please visit their Facebook Page.