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How Much Does It Cost For Life In Prison?

Over 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in prisons and jails across the United States. While locking up criminals serves the purpose of keeping society safe, the financial costs are staggering. Housing inmates is expensive, with some estimates putting the average annual cost at over $30,000 per prisoner.

For those sentenced to life behind bars, this immense expense continues year after year with no end in sight. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the many factors that make life imprisonment so costly and whether this heavy burden on taxpayers is justified.

Average Annual Cost per Inmate

The cost of keeping an inmate imprisoned for a year varies by state, but ranges from around $14,000 to $60,000 per prisoner. According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average annual cost per inmate nationwide was $31,286 in 2015. This includes expenses such as food, housing, health care, corrections staff salaries, and more.

Some key factors driving up the costs:

  • Housing: Providing secure housing, food, and necessities is expensive. Cell blocks, dormitories, cafeterias, and support facilities must be constructed and maintained.
  • Staffing: Corrections officers and other staff account for about 60% of operational costs. Salaries, benefits, overtime, and training add up.
  • Healthcare: Inmates require medical, dental, and mental health services. Older prisoners incur higher average expenses.
  • Services/Programming: Educational programs, job training, libraries, counseling services, and the like are provided to inmates.
  • Administration: Additional expenditures include administrative offices, record-keeping, inspections, legal obligations, etc.

With many states facing budget crises, corrections spending is being reexamined. However, expenses are unlikely to decrease substantially given the mandated basic services inmates must receive.

Cost of Life Imprisonment Over Time

While the annual cost of confinement is high, lifetime inmates accrue massive costs over decades behind bars. To estimate the total expense of life imprisonment, the annual cost can simply be multiplied by the years served. However, we must also account for some additional key factors:


The costs of goods and services will rise over long periods of time. Accounting for an annual inflation rate of 2-3%, expenses could double in 20-30 years. The $30k per year to imprison someone today will be $60k or more down the road.

Medical Costs

As inmates age, their healthcare costs escalate. One study found that prisoners aged 55 and older incur an average annual medical cost of $10,000, compared to just $1,000 for younger inmates. And geriatric prisoners (age 65+) had average expenses exceeding $40,000 per year.

Sentence Length

Life sentences come in many forms, with parole eligibility varying greatly by state. Typical options include:

  • Life without parole
  • 25 years to life
  • 50 years to life
  • Life with parole possibility

The longer inmates are expected to serve, the higher the eventual price tag. We will examine typical sentence lengths later on.

Given all of these considerations, estimating the total cost of a life prison term is not straightforward. But examining some sample cases will help illuminate just how expensive it is to condemn someone to lifelong incarceration.

Estimated Cost of Life Imprisonment Sentences

To demonstrate the massive price tag of lifetime imprisonment, let’s look at some typical scenarios:

Life Without Parole

For those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the cost is simply the annual expense multiplied by the number of years served. Assuming a life expectancy of 78 years for men and 84 years for women, and no adjustment for inflation, we can make rough estimates:

  • Male sentenced at age 30: $30,000 x 48 years = $1,440,000
  • Female sentenced at age 30: $30,000 x 54 years = $1,620,000
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Accounting for inflation at just 2% per year, the estimated costs approximately double:

  • Male: $2,880,000
  • Female: $3,240,000

And the expenses escalate further when factoring in elevated medical costs at older ages. Life without parole is clearly the most expensive form of life sentence.

25 to Life

A sentence of 25 years to life allows the possibility of parole after 25 years served. Actual time served will vary by state and individual case factors. If we assume 40 total years imprisoned on average, the estimated costs are:

  • At 2% inflation: 40 years x $30,000 x 1.02^40 = $1,920,000
  • At 3% inflation: 40 years x $30,000 x 1.03^40 = $2,130,000

While still monumentally expensive, 25-to-life sentences cost about 30% less than life without parole.

Life with Parole

Sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole provide an opportunity for early release after a set minimum time, often 15-30 years. Actual time served averages around 30-35 years. Using a 33 year estimate:

  • At 2% inflation: 33 years x $30,000 x 1.02^33 = $1,470,000
  • At 3% inflation: 33 years x $30,000 x 1.03^33 = $1,620,000

The lower average time served drops the cost by 15-20% compared to 25-to-life sentences. But it still equates to well over $1 million.

This quick examination demonstrates why life sentences are so burdensome on state budgets compared to fixed-term sentences. Even with the uncertainty around estimates, it is clear that condemning someone to die in prison will ultimately cost taxpayers between $1 million and $3 million or more per inmate.

Select Notorious Lifetime Inmates & Estimated Costs

To provide perspective, let’s look at some infamous criminals serving life sentences and the estimated price tag using an average annual cost of $30,000 with 2% inflation:

Charles Manson – convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the 1969 cult killings of 7 people including actress Sharon Tate. Sentenced to life with parole, died at age 83 after nearly 50 years imprisoned.

Estimated cost: $3,420,000

Dylann Roof – white supremacist convicted of the 2015 Charleston church shooting in which he murdered 9 African Americans during a bible study group. Sentenced to 9 consecutive life sentences without parole. Age at sentencing: 22.

Estimated cost: $5,760,000

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – convicted for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed 3 spectators and injured hundreds. Sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment without parole. Age at sentencing: 21.

Estimated cost: $5,850,000

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman – Mexican drug lord convicted on numerous counts including conspiracy, drug trafficking, money laundering, and weapons charges. Sentenced to life plus 30 years without parole. Age at sentencing: 62.

Estimated cost: $1,560,000

Ted Kaczynski – “Unabomber” terrorist convicted for a nationwide bombing campaign killing 3 and injuring 23. Sentenced to life without parole. Age at sentencing: 55.

Estimated cost: $2,640,000

The enormous sums spent to punish these notorious criminals provides perspective on why life sentences carry such a high price tag. But are the benefits to society worth the costs to taxpayers? We will explore that issue in the following sections.

Recidivism Rates for Lifetime Inmates

A primary goal of prison is to protect society by separating dangerous individuals from the public. Life sentences ensure this by permanently removing convicted criminals from communities they could potentially threaten.

But do lifelong inmates actually pose an ongoing danger if released? Recidivism data indicates the answer is generally no for older parolees:

  • A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that only 7.5% of released prisoners over age 55 were re-arrested within 3 years.
  • The recidivism rate for violent offenses specifically was just 2.1% among prisoners age 50-64.
  • In contrast, over 75% of inmates younger than age 40 were re-arrested within 5 years of release.

The data shows that recidivism declines dramatically for older ex-convicts compared to younger ones. There is minimal risk to public safety by granting geriatric prisoners parole. But of course, each case depends on the individual facts and criminal history.

Public Safety Impact of Alternative Sentences

Life imprisonment undoubtedly prevents recidivism while inmates grow old behind bars. But alternatives to lifelong incarceration could achieve the same ends at a fraction of the financial burden. Options include:

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Fixed Term Sentences

Rather than condemn someone to die in prison, fixed prison terms through age 50 or 60 provide very high protection from recidivism at still significant but lower cost. A 60-year-old first-time offender could receive a 40-year sentence and likely pose minimal future danger when released.

Life with Strict Parole

25-to-life or life with parole after 20-30 years provide possibilities for release if inmates demonstrate rehabilitation and very low recidivism risk given their advanced age. Strict monitoring and restrictions can be imposed.

Compassionate Release

Laws could be expanded to allow geriatric or terminally ill inmates petition for early medical parole. This acts as an “early release valve” for incarceration costs while posing little public risk.

In summary, there are options to reduce the staggering burden of lifetime sentences for some inmates while still prioritizing public safety. Limited parole eligibility does not necessarily endanger communities when properly implemented.

Arguments For & Against Life Sentences

The issues around lifelong incarceration are complex with reasonable arguments on both sides. Examining the key perspectives can help illuminate whether the immense costs of life sentences yield benefits that outweigh expenditures or if reforms should be enacted to reduce the burden.

Arguments Supporting Life Sentences

  1. Life means life – Lifelong imprisonment matches sentences to the severity of crimes committed. Violent murder, rape, or child abuse offenders do not deserve parole.
  2. Public safety – Keeping dangerous criminals securely incarcerated until death guarantees the public is protected. Recidivism is eliminated.
  3. Deterrence – Harsh sentences for severe crimes may deter potential offenders from committing them. Lifetime sentences send the strongest deterrence message.
  4. Victims’ rights – Giving murderers, rapists, etc. a guaranteed chance at parole inflicts further suffering on victims and survivors who deserve justice.
  5. Rehabilitation not guaranteed – Although some inmates may be rehabilitated, the risk is too great without lifetime monitoring. Limiting parole reduces risks.

Arguments Against Life Sentences

  1. Excessively expensive – Condemning inmates to die in prison burdens taxpayers with immense long-term costs. Lighter sentences and limited parole eligibility could provide huge savings.
  2. Low recidivism risk – Elderly inmates released pose minimal risk to public safety based on recidivism data. Non-violent elderly prisoners especially merit parole consideration.
  3. Rehabilitation possible – At least some lifelong inmates merit parole based on demonstrating rehabilitation, good behavior, education, etc. They should get a second chance while in late years.
  4. Does not deter – There is little evidence that lifelong sentences versus long fixed-term sentences act as a stronger deterrent against serious crimes. The certainty of any severe punishment deters criminals.
  5. Disproportionate sentences – Non-violent three strike offenders can face life, as can felony murder accomplices and those who aid and abet but don’t do the actual killing. The time does not always match the crime.

This debate features good-faith arguments on both sides. There are reasonable cases to be made for preserving lifelong sentences in many grave cases, as well as reforming the practice in other circumstances. The ideal public policy likely combines facets of each viewpoint.

Cost Comparison to the Death Penalty

The death penalty is the one criminal sentence more severe than life in prison. Sentencing a murderer to capital punishment versus life behind bars also carries major cost ramifications. Which is ultimately more expensive for taxpayers?

The answer may seem counterintuitive, but the death penalty actually costs significantly more than life imprisonment on average:

  • In California, death row inmates incurred average costs of $4.6 million extra compared to life sentences.
  • A Tennessee study found average death penalty case costs were over $1 million higher.
  • In Kansas, capital cases resulted in 70% more appellate costs.

The reasons for the huge price differential include:

  • Lengthy appeals process – Inmates sentenced to death spend decades fighting their convictions through every possible appellate avenue. Lifetime inmates forego this lengthy process.
  • Separate death row incarceration – Special prisons, facilities, staffing, and security measures are required to house inmates awaiting execution for years.
  • Attorney costs – Constitutionally mandated representation for capital punishment cases is much more intensive and expensive.
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Given the extreme costs inherent in capital punishment, life imprisonment without parole is actually the far less burdensome sentence financially despite providing secure lifelong incarceration.

This analysis demonstrates that the most severe criminal penalties carry enormously heavy economic costs along with social implications. Lawmakers must frequently reassess criminal justice laws in search of the ideal balance.

Summary Statistics on Lifetime Inmates in the U.S.

To supplement this examination of life imprisonment costs, here are some key statistics on the population of prisoners serving life terms:

  • Over 200,000 inmates are serving life sentences or virtual life (50+ year) sentences.
  • Nearly 1 in 7 prisoners is a lifelong inmate.
  • The lifelong inmate population has grown 3.6 times since 2000 as sentences have stiffened.
  • 16% have no chance of parole, 38% have life without parole, and 46% have life with parole possibility.
  • The average age at admission is 36 years old. Average years served is around 25.
  • Estimates suggest U.S. taxpayers spend over $60 billion cumulatively to imprison lifelong inmates through end of sentences.

These figures provide essential context when weighing criminal justice policies and considering reforms to sentencing laws or parole eligibility guidelines. The financial implications must be carefully balanced with ideals of public safety and justice.


Life sentences undoubtedly keep dangerous criminals permanently off the streets and prevent them from ever harming more innocent people. But at what cost? Condemning inmates to grow old and die behind bars places a massive burden on taxpayers to pay untold millions per prisoner over decades. The human toll is also substantial.

Yet reforming lifelong incarceration also poses risks to public protection and victims’ rights if implemented poorly. Any changes, such as expanding parole for geriatric inmates, must emphasize prudent measures to minimize dangers to society. Most citizens agree that incarceration periods should reflect the severity of crimes, but spending millions upon millions on low-risk elderly prisoners merits rethinking as well.

How we punish the worst among us through the criminal justice system reveals much about our society’s values and priorities. There are reasonable points to consider on all sides of the life imprisonment debate. As prison populations continue growing and budgets keep ballooning, the monetary and ethical costs should remain part of our conscience. Perhaps there is room to establish more proportionate sentences focused on true rehabilitation, public safety, fairness, and societal benefit. But such reforms require caution, nuance and bipartisan collaboration. The formidable challenges will persist, but it is a debate worth having.

Cost Estimates of Select Life Sentences

InmateCrime(s)SentenceAge at SentencingEst. Years ServedAnnual Cost @ 2% InflationEstimated Total Cost
Dylann RoofMurder of 9Death to Life Without Parole2260 years$30,000 rising to $60,000/year$5,760,000
Joaquin “El Chapo” GuzmanDrug TraffickingLife Without Parole +30 Years6225 Years$30,000$1,560,000​
Scott PetersonMurder of Wife & Unborn BabyLife Without Parole3250 Years$30,000 rising to $90,000/year$5,400,000
Susan EubanksMurder of 4 SonsDeath to Life Without Parole4150 Years$30,000 rising to $90,000/year$5,400,000
Jared LoughnerTucson Mass Shooting7 Life Sentences + 140 Years2250 Years$30,000 rising to $90,000/year$5,400,000​

Quotes on Life in Prison from Inmates:

“After a few weeks in prison you find yourself threatening and shouting and ultimately you just conform. The depths of depravity inside would shock people on the outside.” – Mikhail Popkov, Russian serial killer serving life in prison

“Prison has a way of squeezing the emotion out of you after a while. I’ve seen it happen to the hardest of the hard-core guys. You become institutionalized and learn to bury your feelings. It’s difficult in prison to keep caring.” – Jack Abbott, American criminal and author who spent most of his life incarcerated

“If you counted up all my sentences consecutively, it would come to 300 years. It just seems insane to me.” – Timothy Tyler, sentenced to life without parole for LSD possession under old drug laws

“When they incarcerate you, they not only incarcerate your body they incarcerate your mind and your spirit. The worst kind of incarceration is what you do to yourself if you allow your mind and spirit to dwell in that negative space.” – Susan Rosenberg, revolutionary imprisoned for 16 years before sentence commuted

“Prison has a way of shrinking your humanity down to this tiny, cramped, cold space until you start to believe that’s all you are.” – Oscar Espinoza, inmate featured in documentary Life Four Life: The Redemption of Jarvis Masters

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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