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How Much Does A Prisoner Cost Per Day?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2020, there were over 2 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails across the country. This massive scale of imprisonment comes at an enormous economic and social cost. This article will analyze the financial burden of mass incarceration and why reform is urgently needed.

The Soaring Costs of Housing Prisoners

The cost of housing inmates has skyrocketed in recent decades as the prison population has exploded. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost to incarcerate one inmate in prison for one year is $31,977. However, costs vary widely between states, ranging from $14,780 in Alabama to $60,000 in New York.

With over 2 million people behind bars, the overall price tag is astronomical. States spend a combined $50 billion per year on corrections. The federal government adds another $7 billion annually. In total, experts estimate that the annual cost of mass incarceration in the U.S. is $80 billion to $90 billion.

To put this in perspective, the average cost to incarcerate one prisoner for one year is nearly as high as the average income for an American household. And the total spent on prisons and jails consumes nearly 6% of state budgets, on average. These resources could be better spent on education, healthcare, infrastructure, and other priorities that benefit society at large.

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Key Factors Driving Up Prison Costs

There are several key factors that explain the exorbitant costs of imprisonment in America:

  • Increased prison sentences – Harsher sentencing laws like mandatory minimums and “three strikes” rules have led to longer prison terms, keeping inmates locked up for decades. Longer stays increase costs.
  • Aging prison population – The number of inmates aged 55 or older has quadrupled since the 1990s. Healthcare costs for older prisoners drives up the cost per inmate.
  • Special needs inmates – A large portion of inmates have mental illnesses, chronic medical conditions, and disabilities. Providing treatment and services for these populations is expensive.
  • High security and overhead – Prisons require round-the-clock security staffing, health services, programming, maintenance, utilities, and IT infrastructure. These operational costs add up.
  • Lack of reform – Efforts to reform sentencing, release elderly or rehabilitated inmates, and reduce recidivism have been limited, keeping prisons overcrowded.

The Impact of Incarceration on Families & Communities

Beyond the financial costs, mass incarceration also devastates families, impoverished communities, and society as a whole. Harsh sentencing guidelines have disproportionately impacted African American and Latino populations, removing parents and wage-earners from homes for lengthy terms.

More than half of all inmates have minor children. When a parent goes to jail, the family must survive without their financial and practical support. Children of incarcerated parents face increased risks of struggling in school, substance abuse, and criminal involvement themselves.

At the community level, high levels of incarceration break down the social and economic fabric. Nearly 1 in 4 African American children have an incarcerated parent, collateral damage of harsh drug sentencing. Removing so many adults from already disadvantaged neighborhoods has an intergenerational effect, limiting social mobility and opportunity.

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Reform Efforts to Reduce Prison Populations

In response to the social and economic crisis created by mass incarceration, both political parties have increasingly embraced criminal justice reform aimed at reducing prison populations.

Legislative Reforms

At the federal level and in dozens of states, new laws aim to:

  • Repeal mandatory minimums – Give judges more flexibility in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders
  • Reduce penalties for drug offenses – Shorten sentences and reclassify some drug felonies as misdemeanors
  • Increase parole eligibility – Allow inmates to be considered for carefully supervised early release
  • Expand “good time” – Increase credits for good behavior to shorten sentences for well-behaved prisoners
  • Divert substance abusers – Develop pre-trial diversion, treatment, and intervention programs as alternatives to incarceration
  • Ban the box – Remove conviction history questions from job applications to improve ex-offender employment rates and reduce recidivism

Justice Reinvestment Initiatives

“Justice reinvestment” is a data-driven approach used by over 30 states to control corrections spending and reinvest savings into evidence-based criminal justice reforms. States conduct comprehensive analyses to identify policies that contribute to prison growth and then craft tailored solutions to manage incarcerated populations more cost-effectively.

Table of Notorious Crimes and Cost of Incarceration

Below is a table of infamous crimes and the estimated cost of incarceration based on average prisoner costs:

CriminalCrimeYear ConvictedSentenceEst. Cost to Incarcerate
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud2009150 years$4,796,550
Dzhokhar TsarnaevBoston Marathon bombing2015Death penalty$1,000,000 (average death row cost)
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmánDrug trafficking2019Life in prison$2,000,000+
George ManessisHealthcare fraud201950 years$1,598,850
Sayfullo SaipovTerror truck attack in NYC2020Life in prison$2,000,000+

“The cost to house me for the rest of my life is a mere fraction compared to the billions I’ve stolen or the lives I’ve taken or destroyed. My crimes were horrible but also preventable. If only our society invested in opportunity, education, and rehabilitation instead of mass incarceration, perhaps I would not have ended up here.”

  • Hypothetical quote from an incarcerated criminal
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How much does it cost to keep someone in prison for a year?

The average cost to incarcerate an inmate in prison for one year is $31,977, according to the most recent analysis. However, costs range as high as $60,000 per year in some states like New York and California.

How much does it cost to incarcerate an inmate for life?

The average lifetime cost is estimated at around $1 million per inmate, assuming a life expectancy of 79 years. However, costs can exceed $2 million for younger offenders sentenced to life without parole.

What is the cost breakdown for keeping someone in prison?

Personnel costs including guards and healthcare workers make up about two-thirds of operating costs. The rest covers food, medical care, utilities, building maintenance and other expenses. High security contributes to the costs per inmate.

How do prison costs impact state and federal budgets?

At the state level, prisons consume nearly 6% of total budgets, on average. States spend a combined $50 billion on corrections each year. The federal Bureau of Prisons budget is over $7 billion annually, covering just 215,000 inmates.

How could the billions spent on prisons be better utilized?

Experts argue that reducing mass incarceration would free up billions that could be reinvested into programs that improve society – education, mental health services, drug treatment, job training, and support for crime victims and at-risk youth. Investing in prevention yields better outcomes.


The exorbitant cost of mass incarceration in America diverting public funds from worthier pursuits. Reducing prison populations through criminal justice reforms can strengthen families, communities, public safety, and the economy. Ending the era of mass incarceration requires a paradigm shift. If our end goal is to build a just, equitable and thriving society, we must reconsider excessive imprisonment and invest in the productive potential of all citizens.

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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