Skip to content

How Much Does It Cost To Be In Prison?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars in state and federal prisons and local jails. This mass incarceration comes at an immense cost, not just to those imprisoned and their families, but to society as a whole. In this comprehensive article, we will examine the various direct and indirect costs of America’s prison system and why reform is urgently needed.

Direct Costs of Incarceration

The most obvious expense associated with incarceration is the cost of housing inmates. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost per inmate nationwide is $36,299 per year. With over 2 million people behind bars, that equates to over $80 billion per year just on housing. Here’s a breakdown of the average annual cost per inmate in different types of correctional facilities:

  • Federal prisons – $36,000
  • State prisons – $33,274
  • Local jails – $47,057

These costs cover basic necessities like food, clothing, medical care, and facility maintenance and security. The actual amounts can vary widely by state and type of facility. For example, high-security prisons or those housing a large proportion of inmates with chronic health conditions will cost significantly more per inmate.

Building and maintaining correctional facilities also incurs massive expenditures. According to a report from the Council of Economic Advisers, around $80 billion is spent on corrections infrastructure annually. And as incarceration rates continue to rise, more jails and prisons are being built – over 500 new facilities were opened between 2000 and 2014 alone.

Indirect Costs of Mass Incarceration

On top of the huge sums spent on imprisoning people, there are many hidden costs that ripple through families, communities, and the wider economy.

Impact on Families

Over half of inmates are parents of minor children, and their incarceration takes an enormous toll on families. The loss of income plus court fines and fees plunge many families into poverty. Children suffer developmentally and are more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves later in life. Maintaining contact is made difficult and expensive by distance to prisons and the high cost of collect calls from inmates.

See also  How Much Do Prison Social Workers Make?

Foregone Economic Opportunities

Removing so many people, disproportionately men of color, from their communities for years on end destroys human capital. Incarceration severely damages future earnings potential and economic mobility. Those who have been incarcerated face huge barriers to employment, housing, education and other opportunities that would allow them to be productive members of society.

Fiscal Burden on Communities

While prisons are usually built in remote rural areas, most inmates come from poor urban neighborhoods. The costs of incarcerating residents place an enormous burden on these communities in lost tax revenue, productive workers, and generational stability. Diverting public resources to incarceration also takes funding away from crime prevention, education, housing, and other services that would uplift these neighborhoods.

Why Prison Costs Are So High

There are several factors driving the exorbitant and rising costs of America’s prison system:

  • Harsh sentencing laws – Strict mandatory minimum sentencing, Three Strikes rules, and long sentences for drug crimes result in people spending more time in prison. The average sentence served has increased 36% since 1990. Longer stays per prisoner inevitably increase overall costs.
  • Aging prison population – Thanks to tough sentencing laws, the number of inmates age 55 or older has quadrupled since 1999. Older inmates cost $68,000 per year on average – twice as much as younger ones due to higher healthcare expenses.
  • Chronic understaffing – Most facilities operate below staffing levels needed for safety of inmates and officers. This results in higher overtime costs to maintain bare minimum staffing. Unfilled positions also lead to burnout of existing staff.
  • Solitary confinement – At least 60,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement. This expensive practice involves highly restricted movement and isolation for 22-24 hours per day. Mental health care and disciplinary costs soar due to the psychological effects.
  • Privatization – Private prisons profit off each inmate and have incentives to cut corners, resulting in higher recidivism and re-incarceration rates. Despite no real cost savings, private prisons have exploded from 5% of the total prison population in 2000 to over 120,000 inmates today.
  • Lack of rehabilitative services – Only a tiny fraction of corrections budgets is spent helping inmates gain skills and treatment for addiction, abuse and mental illness issues. This lack of rehabilitative services leads to higher rates of recidivism.
See also  What is a Medium Security Prison?

Cost of Common Crimes

To provide a sense of the amount of taxpayer money spent to incarcerate individuals, here is a table outlining typical sentence lengths and corresponding costs for some common felony crimes:

Crime Typical Sentence Incarceration Cost
Robbery 5 years $168,495
Burglary 2 years $72,598
Drug possession (cocaine) 18 months $54,449
Aggravated assault 10 years $363,290
DUI manslaughter 15 years $544,935

As the table shows, even non-violent drug offenses result in tens of thousands of dollars spent per inmate. The costs quickly multiply for violent crimes involving longer sentences. While justice demands those who break laws be held accountable, excessive sentences for minor crimes are incredibly wasteful.

Quotes on Prison Costs from Reform Advocates

“The overuse of incarceration is squandering billions of dollars that could be better spent on infrastructure, health care and education…it makes no sense to use incarceration to address issues like drug addiction or mental illness. Research shows that prison often makes those problems worse.” – Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project

“It costs about $21,000 a year on average to house a prisoner in the US. For the amount we spend annually on prisons, we could eliminate tuition at every public college and university. We need a justice system that does not waste these valuable resources.” – Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

“The billions spent on excessive sentencing and incarcerating non-violent, lower-risk offenders would be better invested in strengthening our schools, supporting mental health and addiction treatment, and promoting economic development in disadvantaged communities.” – Cecilia Chung, senior director of strategic projects for the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center

Frequently Asked Questions

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

The average cost to incarcerate an inmate in a state prison for one year is $33,274, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Federal prisons spend an average of $36,000 per inmate, while local jails have an average annual cost of $47,057 per inmate.

What percentage of state budgets go to prisons?

Nationwide, around 7% of state general fund expenditures went to corrections in 2017. For some states the portion is even higher – over 9% in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

See also  How Much Prison Time for Aggravated Assault?

How have prison costs changed over time?

Average per inmate costs have more than tripled since the 1980s. When adjusted for inflation, the cost to incarcerate someone for a year ballooned from $15,742 in 1980 to over $36,000 today. Drivers include mandatory minimums, lack of rehabilitative services, aging inmates, and healthcare expenses.

How do US prison costs compare to other countries?

America far outpaces other nations in spending on prisons. Adjusted for inflation, U.S. state prisons spend over 50% more per inmate compared to equivalent institutions in other developed countries. Higher incarceration rates, stiff sentencing laws, and lack of social services explain the extreme costs relative to prisons in Europe and Canada.

Why should taxpayers care about the high cost of prisons?

With over 90% of prison costs funded by taxpayer dollars, excessive incarceration places a huge burden on the budgets of states and the federal government. Those billions could provide more resources for schools, infrastructure, mental health services, or crime prevention programs. High recidivism also means taxpayers foot the bill when former inmates end up back behind bars.


America’s obsession with incarceration is not only socially destructive, it is economically unsustainable. Even with crime rates far below record highs in the 1990s, over 2 million citizens remain behind bars at an average cost exceeding $30,000 per inmate per year. These direct expenditures on corrections divert funding from education, healthcare and community investment. Mass incarceration also imposes indirect costs on families, economic mobility and government budgets.

There are smarter and more humane alternatives to prison for non-violent crimes that could cut these wasteful costs. Parole and probation, diversion programs, addiction treatment, and education better serve justice and rehabilitation goals without the immense financial burden of prisons. Ending excessively long sentences for minor crimes and reforming inhumane solitary confinement are also critical.

With commonsense reforms centered on rehabilitation instead of purely punishment, the U.S. can begin reversing the tidal wave of mass incarceration that has cost taxpayers billions while failing to build safer communities. The first step is recognizing prisons as an ineffective waste of precious resources.

Prison Inside Team

Share this post on social

About us

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

See also  Should Prisoners Be Allowed to Have Phones?

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.

See also  How Much Is Commissary In Prison: A Look at Prison Commissaries