Humpday Hall of Shame: TX Rep. John Culberson in the pocket of private prisons

The Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee held a budget hearing April 10, where they discussed ways to reduce the rising costs of our mass incarceration system. Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testified. Per the usual, privatization was offered as a viable option.

The hearing began with a discussion of the prison industry program, and many members of the subcommittee lamented that the program had been reduced in recent years to prevent competition with the private sector. Supporters of those programs, including Chairman Frank Wolf (VA) and Rep. John Culberson (TX), were particularly frustrated that fewer prisoners in federal prisons are manufacturing goods when, “we are importing products from slave labor camps in communist China.” Unfortunately, that was only the beginning.

Rep. Culberson wasted no time in advocating for not only an expansion of private prison industries, but also the use of private prison contractors. He began by highlighting the “great success in Texas using private contractors to come and build and operate private facilities.” Without any data to support his claims, he went on the say that private facilities in Texas, “operate at a significant savings to taxpayers and provide, frankly, better facilities, better food and better healthcare.” Where he got this information remains unclear. 

What we do know is that private prisons in Texas have been far from “a great success.” Just last week, we published a Humpday Hall of Shame highlighting the failures of the private prison debacle in Willacy County, where poor construction practices by a private contractor resulted in roof leaks costing the county approximately $620,000. Furthermore, private facilities in Texas are rife with serious problems including employee misconduct, assault and insufficient medical treatment, sometimes resulting in death. 

In fact, Grassroots Leadership led a successful campaign to close two terrible private prisons in Texas last year.  One of the facilities, Dawson State Jail, was the site of the deaths of three incarcerated women over the last three years, and the death of an infant girl who was born to a woman at Dawson with no medical personnel on site. 

Apparently Culberson missed all this. Regardless of the evidence against the success of private prisons in Texas, he continued to make his case. He rebutted Samuels repeatedly, even after Samuels indicated that the BOP’s current private contracts were meeting their needs. Culberson continued to push him and Samuels finally conceded to at least consider more federal private contracts.

Although alarming, it is not surprising that Culberson is a strong advocate for the private prison industry; he has received thousands of dollars over the years from the three largest private prison companies: CCA, GEO Group and Management & Training Corp. So without a single source, but thousands of dollars of private prison money lining his pockets, Culberson continued to pressure the BOP to expand their use of private prison contractors.

It was unclear who he was addressing, the committee members or Samuels, when he uttered his foreboding closing remarks: “I hope the subcommittee can do whatever we can to help ‘em expand the use of private facilities.”

Although it is unlikely Culberson will discontinue his push for private prisons, at least not while getting paid so handsomely to do so, the committee should at least question his claims and promises of success. Just a little research would make it obvious that "the great success" Culberson refers to just doesn’t exist.