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How Much Does It Cost Per Prisoner In The US?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2022, there were over 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails across the country. This high rate of incarceration comes at a massive financial cost to taxpayers. Estimates put the average cost per prisoner between $30,000 to $60,000 per year, depending on the state. With over 2 million incarcerated, this translates to $60 to $120 billion per year spent on corrections. Understanding the factors driving these costs and looking for ways to reduce incarceration could lead to significant savings.

Key Stats on Incarceration Costs

The cost of housing inmates varies widely by state due to differences in wages, healthcare costs, infrastructure expenses, and more. Here are some key national statistics that highlight the huge sums spent on incarceration each year:

  • The average annual cost per state prisoner nationwide was $31,286 in fiscal year 2010, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice.
  • Federal prisoners are even more expensive, with an average annual cost of $36,299 per inmate in FY20, according to the Federal Register.
  • With state prisons holding over 1.2 million inmates and federal prisons over 150,000, the overall costs quickly add up.
  • The total budget for federal prisons in FY20 was over $7.8 billion. State budgets for corrections exceed $50 billion per year.
  • In total, experts estimate that $74 to $182 billion is spent every year on incarceration when accounting for all federal, state, and local inmates.

These high costs are mostly driven by staffing needs, infrastructure, healthcare, and programs for inmates. Personnel costs including wages for guards, nurses, counselors and others account for 60% to 80% of most prison budgets.

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Factors Driving High Incarceration Costs

Several key factors contribute to the high cost of housing each prisoner in the United States prison system:

Staffing

Staffing prisons with guards, nurses, counselors, administrators and other personnel requires significant manpower. These staff wages and benefits make up a majority of most corrections budgets. Key staffing factors include:

  • Guard to prisoner ratios – Many states mandate a certain number of guards per inmate. High ratios increase costs.
  • Overtime – Guards often work significant overtime, especially at understaffed prisons, driving up payroll costs.
  • Medical staff – On-site doctors, nurses and psychiatrists are needed to provide healthcare.
  • Administration – Wardens, accountants, IT professionals and more are required to run prison operations.

Infrastructure Expenses

Constructing and maintaining prison facilities is enormously expensive:

  • Construction – Building new prisons can cost $200 to $500 million or more.
  • Maintenance – Keeping facilities operational requires regular upkeep and repairs.
  • Utilities – Heating, cooling, water and electricity bills are a major cost.
  • Supplies and equipment – Things like security cameras, radios, keys, handcuffs and more need regular replacement.

Inmate Healthcare

Incarcerated individuals have a constitutional right to healthcare. Providing medical, dental and mental health treatment drives up per inmate costs:

  • Doctors and nurses – Employing round-the-clock healthcare staff is expensive.
  • Medications – Inmates often have chronic conditions like diabetes, adding to drug costs.
  • Emergencies – Prisons must pay for any emergency room visits or hospital stays.
  • Aging inmates – Longer sentences mean growing elderly prison populations requiring more care.

Programs and Services

Many prisons try to offer rehabilitation programs and education to inmates, which also cost money:

  • Education – Classes to earn high school diplomas or vocational skills certifications.
  • Rehab programs – Addiction therapy, anger management, job training and more.
  • Job opportunities – Some prisons have inmates perform jobs like maintenance, laundry, etc.
  • Reentry services – Programs to help inmates prepare to rejoin society and avoid re-offending.
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While costly, these initiatives have been shown to reduce recidivism for some former prisoners.

State Differences in Incarceration Costs

The average cost per inmate varies significantly between states based on differences in wages, healthcare expenses, facility conditions and other factors. Below are the estimated average annual costs per prisoner for five sample states:

StateAverage Annual Cost Per Prisoner
California$81,458
Texas$22,012
Florida$54,074
New York$69,355
Louisiana$16,539

California’s high cost is driven by large numbers of high-security inmates, bloated staff salaries and benefits, and healthcare for aging prisoners serving long sentences. Texas and Louisiana cost much less due to lower wages, sparse facilities and large prison populations spread across many institutions.

Steps to Reduce Incarceration Costs

With billions spent annually on corrections, many policy analysts have suggested reforms to reduce costs without compromising public safety:

  • Reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes – Shorter sentences for minor drug and property crimes could cut prisoner populations.
  • Increase parole releases – Allow more inmates to finish sentences early with supervised parole.
  • Expand prison work programs – Work opportunities reduce idleness and provide job skills.
  • Cut mandatory minimums – Eliminating mandatory sentences gives more plea bargain flexibility.
  • Increase probation use – Community supervision costs pennies compared to incarceration.
  • Lower recidivism – Preventing ex-convicts from returning to prison saves future costs.
  • Reduce staff overhead – New technologies like cameras and sensors can cut personnel needs.
  • Sentencing reforms – Changes like eliminating bail for minor charges and increased use of diversion programs.
  • Improve prisoner health – Treating medical and mental issues can reduce long-term care costs.

With smarter policies, it may be possible to maintain public safety while also spending significantly less on locking up so many Americans.

Crimes, Convictions and Taxpayer Costs

The table below profiles 5 real cases of crimes, convictions and the estimated taxpayer costs to imprison these criminals based on average incarceration costs:

NameCrime CommittedConvictionSentenceEst. Cost to Incarcerate
Michael CohenTax fraud, campaign finance violationsPled guilty3 year sentence$93,000 to $186,000
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraudFound guilty at trial150 year sentence$4.5 million to $9 million
El ChapoDrug trafficking, organized crimeFound guilty at trialLife sentence + 30 years$1.8 million to $3.6 million
George PapadopoulosLying to federal investigatorsPled guilty14 days + 12 months probation$4,200 to $8,400
Larry NassarSexual abuse of minorsPled guilty60 year sentence$1.8 million to $3.6 million

The huge sums spent to imprison criminals like drug traffickers, financial schemers and sex abusers add up quickly. Non-violent offenders with short sentences like George Papadopoulos cost significantly less to punish than lifelong inmates like El Chapo and Larry Nassar.

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Key Questions on Prison Costs

Why does it cost so much to imprison someone?

The high costs are driven by expenses like correctional staff wages, healthcare for inmates, infrastructure upkeep and rehabilitation programs. Personnel costs alone make up around 60-80% of most prison budgets.

Does it really cost over $30,000 per year per inmate?

Yes, according to reported figures from state corrections departments and the Department of Justice. The costs vary by state but range from around $16,000 to over $80,000 per prisoner annually.

Are private prisons cheaper to operate?

Some research shows private prisons can save up to 10% compared to public institutions. However, the savings are controversial, and most inmates are still in public facilities.

What are ways to reduce incarceration costs?

Policy reforms like shorter sentences, more parole releases, increased probation use and lower recidivism rates could potentially lower costs significantly.

How much could taxpayers save by reducing incarceration rates?

If the incarcerated population fell by 50%, taxpayers could save approximately $30 to $60 billion per year in corrections costs based on average expenses per inmate.

Conclusion

The incarceration rate and costs associated with imprisoning millions of Americans has increased exponentially in recent decades. While expenditures exceeded $80 billion in 2010 alone, some analysis indicates that non-violent offenders make up over 60% of the prison population. Exploring sentencing reforms for non-violent crimes and increased utilization of probation and parole for qualifying offenders could potentially reduce prison populations and generate significant savings.

Prison should be reserved for the most serious, violent criminals that pose a real safety risk. For many others, more cost-effective punitive and rehabilitative options may serve the interests of justice while also reducing the huge financial burden on taxpayers to fund America’s expansive prison system. With smarter policies, improved societal outcomes, and lower costs could be simultaneously achieved.

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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