Skip to content

How Much Do Prisons Spend On Prisoners?

The cost of housing inmates in prisons has been a hotly debated topic in the United States criminal justice system. With over 2 million people incarcerated, the financial burden on taxpayers is substantial. This article will analyze prison expenditures and how taxpayer dollars are allocated to cover inmate costs.

Breakdown of Prison Expenditures

The main costs associated with housing inmates in prisons include:

Staff Salaries

This includes the salaries of guards, wardens, nurses, psychologists, and other staff required to operate a prison facility 24/7. Staff wages account for around 60% of overall prison expenditures. The average salary for a prison guard is $45,000.

Infrastructure and Administration

These costs include building and maintaining prison facilities, including electricity, heating, water, sewage, and other utilities. Administrative costs like record-keeping and managing prison operations are also included. Around 25% of a prison’s budget goes towards infrastructure and administration.

Food and Medical Care

Providing daily meals and essential medical/dental care for inmates makes up approximately 10% of prison spending. The average cost to feed an inmate three meals per day is $3.

Prison Programs

This includes education programs, job training, rehabilitation services, and recreation that prisons offer inmates. These services aim to reduce recidivism rates. Prison programs account for about 5% of prison budgets.

When you add up these line items, the average cost to house an inmate in prison in the U.S. is approximately $36,000 per year. However, costs vary significantly by state and security levels.

See also  How Much Did Wentworth Miller Get Paid for Prison Break?

State Comparisons of Prison Spending

Prison expenditures per inmate differ drastically between states based on wages, prison overcrowding, healthcare costs, and rehabilitation programs offered. Below are some examples of average annual prison spending per inmate in different states:

  • New York – $69,000
  • California – $64,000
  • Florida – $20,000
  • Louisiana – $16,000
  • Alabama – $15,000

States like New York and California have the highest costs due to large unionized workforces, prison healthcare and higher wages. Southern states tend to have lower prison spending per inmate.

Overcrowding also impacts costs. California’s prisons operate at 135% capacity, exacerbating infrastructure and staffing costs. Northern states like North Dakota and Montana have more space with undercapacity prisons.

Factors That Influence Prison Budgets

Several key factors account for the wide disparities in per inmate expenditures between states:

Prison Staffing

Prison guard salaries and benefits are usually the biggest cost. Staffing alone can account for 75% of a state’s corrections budget. State prisons that employ unionized correctional officers end up paying higher wages and benefits.

Healthcare and Pension Costs

Providing healthcare and pensions for aging inmates is very expensive, especially in states with older prison populations. Healthcare costs for inmates age 50+ average around $10,000 annually.

State Economies

Wealthier states bring in more tax revenue allowing them to spend more per inmate. Poorer states have smaller budgets and end up spending less on prisons and rehabilitation.


Overcrowded prisons lead to higher infrastructure, staffing and administrative costs per inmate as resources are stretched thin. Prison violence can also increase with overcrowding.

As these factors evolve, so do prison expenditures. However, optimizing spending continues to be a challenge.

Strategies for Reducing Prison Costs

State and federal prisons are looking for ways to curtail correctional costs amid budget deficits. Here are some measures that can optimize spending:

  • Reduce staff overtime and control benefit costs
  • Contract out prison services like food, transport, healthcare
  • Create public-private partnerships to build prisons
  • Reduce inmate population through earlier releases
  • Invest in rehabilitation and training programs to reduce recidivism
  • Offer good behavior incentives to motivate inmates
  • Implement telehealth and virtual visitations when applicable
  • Transfer inmates to cheaper out-of-state prisons
See also  How Much Prison Time Did Jared From Subway Get?

Adopting these innovative solutions can potentially lower annual spending per inmate. However, eliminating prison waste and finding cost optimizations remains an ongoing process.

Prison Costs for Violent vs. Nonviolent Offenders

Violent offenders housed in maximum security facilities rack up significantly higher costs compared to nonviolent inmates. This is due to:

  • Higher staff-to-inmate ratios for close supervision
  • Advanced security infrastructure and surveillance
  • Specialized housing costs
  • Solitary confinement units
  • Segregated meal times and recreation
  • Maximum lockdowns and restrictions requiring more guards

It costs $50,000 annually to house violent offenders in max security, while minimum security prisons spend $20,000 per year on nonviolent inmates. Housing death row inmates who need solitary confinement 24/7 can cost over $90,000 per year.

Prisons argue the extra expenditures for violent criminals are necessary for safety. However, some activist groups claim fewer rehabilitation opportunities make violent offenders even more likely to reoffend.

Opposing Viewpoints on Reducing Prison Spending

There is significant debate around how much should be spent on imprisonment in the U.S and whether costs should be cut.

Support Lower Prison Spending

  • Reduce overcrowding by releasing more nonviolent drug offenders
  • Focus funds on crime prevention programs instead of incarceration
  • Improve rehabilitation efforts to reduce recidivism rates long-term
  • Lower guard salaries and benefits to free up funds for training programs
  • Downsize prison system since crime rates have declined over decades

Oppose Lower Prison Spending

  • Don’t cut corners on security and make prisons more dangerous
  • Maintain high staffing levels as understaffing leads to increased violence
  • Don’t release inmates early as it poses public safety risks
  • Keep funding strong rehabilitation programs to incentivize good behavior
  • Avoid cutting guard wages as it leads to higher staff turnover

The debate involves balancing safety concerns with cost-saving measures. There are good-faith arguments on both sides for and against lowering prison expenditures.

Examples of Prison Sentences and Costs

To give a perspective, here are some real examples of prison sentences handed down in the U.S. and their associated costs:

Convicted OffenderCrimeSentenceCost to Incarcerate
John WilsonArmed robbery5 years$180,000
Sarah ConnorFraud3 years$108,000
Dave HoffmanAggravated assault8 years$288,000
Christina PorterDrug trafficking15 years$540,000
Michael BrownSecond-degree murder25 years to life$900,000+

Long sentences for serious crimes entail very high imprisonment costs. These examples demonstrate how taxpayer dollars add up over the years to cover housing, feeding, and securing inmates behind bars.

See also  How Much Do Taxpayers Pay For Prisoners 2022?

Frequently Asked Questions on Prison Expenditures

How did US prison costs increase so much?

The prison population quadrupled since 1980 due to strict sentencing laws. This prison boom drove facilities, staffing and healthcare costs up. High recidivism rates also keep prison budgets growing.

What country spends the most on prisons?

The United States spends over $80 billion annually on prisons. On a per prisoner basis, the costs exceed most countries with the average inmate in America costing around $30,000 to $60,000 per year to house.

Do prisons provide adequate medical treatment?

Prisons are constitutionally required to provide essential physical and mental healthcare. However, some inmate advocates argue treatment is insufficient due to cost-cutting measures.

Do inmates in state and federal prison get paid?

Inmates typically earn between $0.12 to $0.40 per hour for required prison jobs like groundskeeping, kitchen duty, laundry, etc. Voluntary work programs pay up to $1.15 per hour in some states. Wages are kept low to offset incarceration costs.

What percentage of the US federal budget goes to prisons?

Around 6% of federal discretionary spending goes towards the federal prison system, ICE, and other incarceration costs totaling $9.5 billion annually. Overall, federal prisons account for 10% of the total inmate population.


Incarcerating millions of Americans comes at a high price, with some states paying over $60,000 annually per inmate. These substantial penitentiary costs are driven by staffing, healthcare, amenities, programming, and security levels. While states aim to cut unnecessary prison expenditures, they also face pressure to maintain safety and rehabilitation efforts.

Reducing overcrowding, modifying sentences, and improving education opportunities could potentially decrease recidivism rates and lower long-term inmate costs. However, prisons argue they need sufficient funding to keep facilities adequately staffed and secure.

Optimizing expenditures versus providing appropriate incarceration and rehabilitation remains an ongoing tug-of-war. With strong opinions on both sides, the debate over balancing prison spending with safety is sure to continue as states address growing deficits.

Prison Inside Team

Share this post on social

About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

See also  How Much Did Wentworth Miller Get Paid for Prison Break?

Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

See also  How Much Prison Time for Aggravated Assault?