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How Much Do Taxpayers Pay For Prisoners 2022?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people currently behind bars in state and federal prisons and local jails. Housing and caring for this many inmates comes at a huge cost to taxpayers. But exactly how much do American taxpayers pay to keep criminals incarcerated? Let’s take a detailed look at the various expenses that comprise the cost of running our prison system.

Staffing Expenses – The Biggest Cost Driver

By far the biggest expense in running prisons and jails is staffing them. This includes salaries and benefits for correctional officers, administrators, healthcare workers, counselors, maintenance crews and more. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, around 2/3 of most corrections budgets go towards staffing costs.

With over 400,000 correctional officers employed nationwide, their salaries and benefits alone cost taxpayers tens of billions per year. While officer pay varies by state, the average annual salary is around $45,000. With overtime, healthcare and pension benefits added, the total compensation package for the average officer is close to $70,000 per year.

Why so many staff? Maintaining safety and security requires adequate staffing 24/7. Standards typically call for a prisoner-to-staff ratio of between 3:1 and 5:1. But in recent years, many prisons have been understaffed due to high turnover and staffing shortages. This dangerously raises the ratio and stresses the system.

Facility Operations and Services – The Essential Expenses

While staffing may be the primary cost, there are still huge sums spent on the day-to-day operations and services of correctional facilities:

  • Food service – Feeding millions of prisoners 3 meals per day totals nearly $5 billion per year. Food costs average $3-4 per prisoner daily.
  • Healthcare – From routine checkups to emergency care and medications, inmate healthcare costs taxplayers over $12 billion annually. Per prisoner costs average $5,720 a year.
  • Utilities – Heating, cooling, water and electricity for prison facilities costs states $5 billion+ per year. The average utility cost per prisoner is around $1,600 annually.
  • Maintenance and repairs – Keeping often aging facilities functional requires continual maintenance and repairs at a cost of around $5 billion per year nationwide.
  • Supplies and equipment – Essentials like food supplies, medical supplies, clothing, cleaning items , furniture and security equipment add up to multi-billion dollar costs per year as well.
  • Information technology – Computers, telecommunications, software and other IT expenses tally another $2+ billion per year.
  • Transportation – Transporting inmates safely to courts, medical appointments etc. rings up a $1 billion+ annual transportation tab.
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Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs – The Catch-22

Programming aimed at reforming prisoners and preparing them for reentry, like education, job training, counseling and addiction treatment, costs taxpayers around $5 billion annually. But studies show these rehabilitative services can also provide huge savings down the road, by reducing recidivism rates after release.

Each case of re-incarceration costs an average of $30,000 in expesnes. So programming that prevents even a small percentage of returns to prison can yield big savings. But funds for rehabilitation are often on the budgetary chopping block. This creates a catch-22: cutting these services leads to higher future costs over the long run.

The True Cost Per Inmate – Higher Than You Think

When all the expenses are calculated, the average cost taxpayers pay to incarcerate one federal prisoner for one year is over $36,000. State prisons come in around $33,000 per inmate annually. And the cost of a local jail inmate averages $25,000 per year.

With over 5 million adults under some type of correctional supervision, the numbers add up fast:

  • Federal prison system – $7+ billion per year
  • State prisons – $50+ billion per year
  • Local jails – $25+ billion per year

All totaled, experts estimate that the direct cost of incarcerating over 2 million inmates runs taxpayers over $80 billion per year. And those figures don’t even include the indirect costs communities pay for loss of productivity, effects on families, and increased burdens on law enforcement and courts.

When you divide the total cost by the US population, it means taxpayers each pay around $250 annually for the incarceration of their fellow citizens. Of course, budgets and costs vary widely by state. But any way you slice it, imprisonment puts a huge dent in public coffers.

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Notable Criminal Cases and the Cost of Their Incarceration

To give a better idea of the taxpayer cost for specific high-profile cases, here is a table of several infamous crimes and estimates of how much the perpetrators’ incarceration will cost:<table> <thead> <tr> <th>Criminal</th> <th>Crime Committed</th> <th>Sentence</th> <th>Estimated Cost of Incarceration</th> </tr> </thead> <tbody> <tr> <td>Bernie Madoff</td> <td>Ponzi scheme fraud</td> <td>150 years</td> <td>$2 million+</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Dylan Roof</td> <td>Charleston church massacre</td> <td>Death sentence</td> <td>$600,000+ pending appeals/execution</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Jared Loughner</td> <td>Tucson shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords</td> <td>Life in prison</td> <td>$2 million+</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Dzhokhar Tsarnaev</td> <td>Boston Marathon bombing</td> <td>Death sentence</td> <td>$800,000+ pending appeals/execution</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Ariel Castro</td> <td>Cleveland kidnappings</td> <td>1,000 years</td> <td>$1.2 million+</td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

While execution costs are far less than lifetime imprisonment, the appeals process in death penalty cases is very lengthy and costly. So much so that sentencing a criminal to die may perversely end up costing taxpayers more in some instances.

Quotes on the Costs and Consequences

Reactions to the impact of mass incarceration on society and taxpayers include these thought-provoking quotes:

“If you consider how much money is spent on incarceration, and that about 80% of the incarcerated population is eventually released, we must put more focus on preparing individuals for reentry into society.” – Cory Booker

“For far too long we have measured our nation’s criminal justice system not by standards of fairness and equality, but by standards of maximizing incarceration and profit. The prison industrial complex is a stain on our national character.” – Bryan Stevenson

“Prisons and jails are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo – obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.” – Angela Davis

These quotes capture the need for reforming the system to balance punishment and rehabilitation in a way that benefits society as well as prisoners. Relying too much on incarceration is neither cost-effective nor beneficial long-term.

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Here are answers to 5 of the most common questions about how much taxpayers pay for the prison system:

How much do taxpayers pay per inmate nationally?

The average cost taxpayers pay per inmate nationally is around $33,000 per year for state prisons, $36,000 per year for federal prisons, and $25,000 for local jails.

What is the total annual cost of incarceration in the US?

Experts estimate that total taxpayer cost of incarceration in the US, including state and federal prisons as well as local jails, exceeds $80 billion per year.

How has the cost of incarceration changed over time?

Over the past 20 years, the annual cost of incarceration has more than tripled, rising from around $25 billion in the mid 1990s to over $80 billion today.

How much could it save taxpayers to reduce recidivism rates?

Reducing recidivism rates by just 10% could save taxpayers $4.8 billion per year by lowering re-incarceration costs. Effective reentry and rehabilitation programs could drive even higher savings.

How do costs of incarceration impact state and local budgets?

In many states, corrections budgets now consume 10-15% of total expenditures, squeezing funding for things like education, transportation and public services.

Conclusion – Seeking a More Balanced Approach

The desire to get criminals off the street is understandable. But maintaining public safety has to be balanced against excessive costs. The intake of prisoners has exploded beyond sustainable levels and taxpayers are left footing monumental bills.

With more imprisonment not clearly linked to lower crime rates, rethinking sentencing laws and forging new rehabilitative models may be the wisest path forward. Supporting innovative policies that curb mass incarceration could benefit society in multiple ways, while also easing the burden on taxpayers.

There are no easy answers when balancing cost against justice. But examining the issues with an open mind could lead to reforms that restore more rationality, compassion and fiscal responsibility to the criminal justice system. That is an outcome that could gain wide public support across the political spectrum.

Prison Inside Team

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

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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.

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