Journalist Claims Feds Retaliated Against Him for Exposing Covid-19 Outbreak at Halfway House

The editor of a Black community newspaper says he was penalized for bringing attention to a Covid-19 outbreak at the halfway house where he is serving time.

Screenshot of Keith “Malik” Washington from an October 2020 interview with the group Defending Rights & Dissent.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Private prison officials seized a newspaper editor’s phone and delayed his release from a halfway house after he shared information about a Covid-19 outbreak at the facility, the journalist claims in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Keith “Malik” Washington became an advocate for prison reform and exposing civil rights abuses behind bars when he served time at a Texas penitentiary, he said in a recent video interview.

Last year, Washington became editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay View, one of the most prominent Black community newspapers in the nation, after its longtime editor, Mary Ratcliff, retired after 44 years in that role.

Washington served 13 years in federal prison for robbery, according to his lawyer Richard Tan. In September, he was transferred to the Taylor Street Reentry Center as part of a pre-release program. The halfway house in San Francisco is run by GEO Group through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As part of his work-release program, Washington could leave the halfway house Monday through Saturday to do his job as a newspaper editor.

On Jan. 8, GEO Group distributed a “non-confidential” memo to Taylor Street residents stating that “a few residents and staff recently tested positive for the Covid-19.” That night, Washington texted Tim Redmond, founder of the independent news site 48Hills.org, about the outbreak. They discussed it on the phone the next morning.

On Jan. 9, a copy of GEO Group’s memo was posted on Twitter. Washington saw that tweet and sent Redmond a link to it, according to his lawsuit. That same day, S.F. Bay View managing editor Nube Brown sent out a press release accusing GEO Group of withholding information about the Covid-19 outbreak and having “no plans to test the residents until possibly next week.”

Later that day, Redmond emailed the press release to Taylor Street facility director Maria Richard, asking how many staff and residents tested positive for the virus and if residents would be released early to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread.

After some back and forth, Redmond received an email the next day stating, “there are currently zero staff or resident Covid cases at Taylor Street.” Redmond replied with a copy of the Jan. 8 memo, asking if it was fraudulent. A few hours later, GEO Group spokeswoman Monica Hook told Redmond that three people had tested positive and were subsequently moved off-site, according to the complaint.

At around the same time, an unknown employee at the facility told Washington that his permission to attend a press conference about alleged racism in the San Francisco Health Services System on Jan. 11 had been revoked. He was told that Richard, the facility director, ordered staff to prevent him from attending the press conference.

Later that day, Washington was ordered to turn over his cell phone and share the code to unlock his phone so staff could access his personal data.

After his emails with Redmond were found, Washington was charged with violations of Bureau of Prisons rules, including “Unauthorized Contact with the Public” and “Phone Abuse.” He was told his phone would be confiscated for 30 days and his good behavior credits would be revoked, extending his earliest possible release date to home confinement from March 19 to May 31.

Washington’s lawyer, Richard Tan, said the Bureau of Prisons generally takes the position that using a cellphone is a privilege, not a right, and that prisoners have no First Amendment right to use a smartphone.

Tan insisted that his client is being punished for using his role as a newspaper editor to bring attention to the outbreak. He said the rule violations were used as a pretext to impose discipline.

“If a person was retaliated against for exercising First Amendment rights, it doesn’t matter if the government has a reason they can put on paper for the discipline,” Tan said.

Washington said in a recorded interview last October that the First Amendment is “very, very important” and that prisoners are often “targeted horribly for just exercising that right.”

Tan said the most urgent issue involved in this case is the public’s interest in obtaining information about a Covid-19 outbreak at a minimum-security facility in a densely populated neighborhood of San Francisco.

“The residents are permitted to go out into the community so there’s a great public interest in knowing about a Covid outbreak at the halfway house,” Tan said.

Tan’s client was told that he must get permission from Bureau of Prison officials in Washington D.C. before he can have contact with a journalist or the press, even though he works as a newspaper editor.

In June last year, the Intercept published a report stating that GEO Group touted its handling of the coronavirus to its investors while the virus spread rapidly in its halfway houses. Following that report, the company was hit with two shareholder class actions for allegedly misleading investors.

Last year, a federal judge issued two injunctions requiring GEO Group to implement stricter Covid-19 safeguards at a private immigrant detention center in California after finding the contractors “cannot be trusted on their own to provide reasonably safe conditions to detainees.”

GEO Group and the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment Monday evening.

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