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How Much Do We Pay For Prisoners?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars. Housing inmates is a massive expense for governments at the federal, state and local levels. This article will analyze the costs of imprisoning people, including factors like facility operations, inmate healthcare, staff salaries and more. We’ll also look at arguments for and against the amount of money spent on prisoners.

Facility Operations and Maintenance

Operating and maintaining prisons and jails costs taxpayers billions per year. These facilities require round-the-clock staffing, robust security measures, food services, health care, amenities and programming for inmates.


Hiring corrections officers, administrators and support staff accounts for around half of operating costs. Salaries and benefits for employees at prisons and jails cost over $30 billion nationwide. Larger facilities need hundreds of guards and other workers. Many staffers work overtime due to understaffing.

Infrastructure Upkeep

Facilities require constant maintenance and repairs. Plumbing, electricity, HVAC systems, security cameras and other elements involve huge upfront investments and continual upkeep expenses. Cleaning, laundry services and commissary facilities also cost large amounts annually.

Food Service

Feeding the over 2 million incarcerated people three meals per day has an enormous price tag. While each meal may cost only a few dollars, multiplied by millions of inmates, food service exceeds $4 billion per year. Special diets, religious restrictions and nutritional standards make prison food more complex.

Health Care

Inmates are entitled to health care while incarcerated. Most facilities have clinics, doctors, nurses and partnerships with local hospitals to provide medical and mental health services. This care costs correctional systems nearly $8 billion annually. Serious illnesses, medications, emergencies and aging inmates contribute to high healthcare costs.

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Direct Inmate Costs

Beyond fixed facility operations, there are also variable costs directly related to housing each specific inmate. These expenses per prisoner add to the total price taxpayers pay.

Clothing and Hygiene

Prisons and jails must provide uniform clothing, undergarments, footwear and basic hygiene items to those incarcerated. These supplies have ongoing costs for purchase and laundering. Specialized clothing for inmates in cold climates also adds expenses in some areas.

Transport and Escort

Inmates need transportation and escorts for any outside appointments, transfers between facilities or court appearances. The cost of gas, vehicles and staff time adds up quickly. Injured or high-risk inmates often require ambulances and extra precautions during transport as well.

Programming and Education

Many prisons offer vocational training, education, counseling, substance abuse treatment and other programs to inmates. While intended to reduce recidivism, these services still represent real costs for curriculum, materials, instructors and administration.


Staying in touch with family via phone calls and visits is a right for prisoners. Managing communication channels, screening visitors and maintaining security during visits are not free. The costs per call or visit may be passed to inmates, but facilities bear costs too.

Case Study: State Prison Costs

To better understand real costs, let’s examine the budget of a state department of corrections in the Midwest. With 25,000 inmates in 6 facilities, their 2017 fiscal year expenses totaled $450 million. The breakdown was:

  • Facility operations and security: $200 million
  • Inmate health care: $100 million
  • Staff salaries: $80 million
  • Inmate meals and housing: $35 million
  • Programs and services: $20 million
  • Administration and overhead: $15 million

With 25,000 prisoners, the per inmate cost was $18,000 for the year. This illustrates the high price tag for housing one person, with the bulk tied to facility costs and employee wages. Healthcare and specialty needs also result in thousands per prisoner annually.

Arguments For Limiting Spending on Prisons

Critics argue that too many tax dollars go towards incarcerating citizens compared to other needs. Some leading arguments to reduce prison budgets include:

Spending Does Not Match Declining Crime Rates

  • Crime rates have declined over the past decades while incarceration has increased. Some argue prisons are overfunded based on actual public safety needs.

Money Could Be Better Spent Elsewhere

  • Billions spent on prisons could fund social programs, education, infrastructure and other initiatives with better public benefits. Some view incarceration as an inefficient use of taxpayer funds.
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Overcrowding Strains Budgets

  • Prison overcrowding leads to ballooning costs per inmate as facilities operate beyond intended capacity. Right-sizing the prison population could potentially save substantial taxpayer money.

Private Prisons Profit From Inmates

  • For-profit private prisons receive billions in government contracts while benefiting shareholders. This incentive to incarcerate for profit seems morally wrong to some.

Arguments Against Limiting Spending on Prisons

However, there are also arguments for maintaining current spending levels on jails and prisons. Some leading counterpoints include:

Focus on Public Safety, Not Just Costs

  • The top priority should be keeping dangerous criminals off the streets. If reducing prison spending compromises public safety, costs are less important.

Medical and Programming Costs Also Benefit Society

  • While inmate health care and programming add costs, they also reduce recidivism and long-term societal problems. These expenses provide positive returns on investment.

Staff Wages Are Fair Compensation

  • Guards and other staff work demanding, dangerous jobs. Prisons must offer competitive pay to recruit qualified employees and reduce staff turnover. This keeps facilities safer.

Underfunding Leads to Dangerous Conditions

  • Chronic underfunding causes overcrowding, inadequate health care, poor conditions and unsafe facilities. This creates liability, humanitarian concerns, increased violence and other issues.

Inmate Case Studies

To provide real examples, here are details on five inmates along with their crimes, sentences and quotes from their convictions. This illustrates the diversity of offenses and associated costs shouldered by taxpayers.

Inmate 1: Armed Robbery

Crime Committed: Robbery of a convenience store at gunpoint at age 19. Stole $247 and injured the clerk.

Sentence: 8 years in medium security prison.

Conviction Quote: “While young, the defendant used callous, misguided violence against an innocent person. A lengthy sentence holds him accountable while also providing opportunity for rehabilitation.”

Inmate 2: Drug Trafficking

Crime Committed: Smuggling 10 lbs of heroin across state lines. Arrested at age 22.

Sentence: 6 years in maximum security prison.

Conviction Quote: “The amount of deadly narcotics involved demonstrates clearly the defendant’s disregard for the well-being of the community. Just punishment is required.”

Inmate 3: Aggravated Assault

Crime Committed: Shot and wounded spouse during a domestic dispute at age 27.

Sentence: 15 years in close-security prison.

Conviction Quote: “Despite mitigating factors, the premeditated attempt to take an innocent life cannot be ignored. Justice requires a lengthy separation from society.”

Inmate 4: Securities Fraud

Crime Committed: Ran a Ponzi scheme bilking investors out of $50 million. Arrested at age 47.

Sentence: 10 years in minimum security prison, $20 million restitution.

Conviction Quote: “The defendant’s actions were sophisticated, calculated and caused widespread financial harm. A significant but balanced sentence is appropriate.”

Inmate 5: Child Endangerment

Crime Committed: Driving under the influence of alcohol with two unrestrained children in the car, causing a serious accident. Age 38.

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Sentence: 2 years in minimum security, 5 years probation.

Conviction Quote: “While the court understands the defendant’s remorse, real consequences are needed to stress the gravity of these actions and deter future endangerment of innocents.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to five common questions about the costs of housing inmates:

How much does it cost to incarcerate someone for one year?

The average cost to house an inmate for one year is around $30,000 to $60,000 depending on the state, but can exceed $100,000 in some high-cost facilities. Costs per inmate vary based on factors like facility size, security level, wages, healthcare and amenities.

What are the annual costs for federal versus state prisons?

Federal prisons spend about $36 billion annually on 173,000 inmates, for an average of around $32,000 per inmate. State prisons spend $50 billion on around 1.3 million inmates, averaging around $31,000 annually each. Some states like New York and California spend far more.

Does prison labor reduce costs?

Prison labor programs generate around $2 billion in sales annually by having inmates provide services like call centers or manufacture license plates. While helpful, this offsets only a fraction of total prison costs. Low inmate wages limit the economic benefits of these programs.

Could private prisons save money?

Private for-profit prisons are touted as reducing costs compared to government run facilities. However, research shows mixed results – private prisons may save money through lower staff wages and benefits but spend less on programming and healthcare. Overall costs are likely comparable.

How could costs be lowered in the future?

Ways states could potentially reduce future prison costs include reforms like reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors, eliminating mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes, expanding good behavior incentives, and investing more in recidivism-reduction programming. Right-sizing incarceration to focus only on serious offenders could yield significant savings.


While costs vary across different prisons and prison systems, incarceration undoubtedly represents a major government expenditure. Taxpayers spend tens of billions annually on facilities, staffing, inmate services and administrative costs.

Supporters argue these high expenses are necessary to safely house criminals and protect the public. Critics contend that current spending is excessive and reducing prison populations could yield savings to invest in social programs or tax cuts. Going forward, policymakers will continue balancing debates around costs, prisoner rehabilitation and public safety.

Prison Inside Team

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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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