SF editor sues prison company on free speech grounds

Journalist said corporation retaliated after he exposed COVID outbreak

Keith “Malik” Washington, chief editor of a San Francisco newspaper known for covering prisons and political issues, has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons and private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc. for an alleged violation of his First Amendment rights.

Washington, an incarcerated resident of Taylor Street Center, GEO Group’s halfway house in the Tenderloin, is a journalist for San Francisco Bay View, one of the nation’s largest Black publications. He says when he told a colleague from the local news website 48 Hills about a COVID-19 outbreak in the center, the prison corporation retaliated.

Washington says he was denied the opportunity to attend press conferences, his phone was confiscated and he was prohibited from speaking to the media without being granted special permission from officials in Washington, D.C.

“The Federal Bureau of Prisons have established a pattern of conduct where they mistreat, abuse and censor any prisoner who dares to challenge their oppressive policies,” Washington said in a news release.

Washington’s attorney Richard Tan, who filed the suit on Feb. 1 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is advocating for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction reversing the action against Washington.

“He’s had his good time credits revoked as a result of the discipline, which extends to both his eligibility for home confinement, as well as his final release day,” Tan said.

Tan said the case’s concerns are not only about an individual speech violation, but also about GEO Group’s attempt to shield the public from knowing about an outbreak in the community.

“A developing COVID-19 outbreak in the heart of San Francisco is a serious public health concern,” Tan said. “We believe that Mr. Washington was entitled to expose that outbreak and that he was right to do so.”

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is supporting Washington. Public Defender Mano Raju said, “I stand in solidarity with Malik Washington and applaud his willingness to expose what has been taking place under the watch of GEO Group. I am also disappointed to learn of GEO Group’s alleged retaliatory acts against Mr. Washington, who was attempting to exercise his freedom of speech and his right to protect his health and community from a potentially deadly disease.”

In light of President Joe Biden’s recent order on a ban on contracts with private prisons after cases of mistreatment of undocumented people across the U.S., Washington said, “I’m calling on Joe Biden, I’m calling on Susan Rice, I’m calling on our Vice President Kamala Harris, to get involved right now and to put their hands on this situation. The free speech violations that are going on must be addressed immediately.”

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