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How Much Does It Cost To Have Someone In Prison?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2020, there were over 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails across the country. This mass incarceration comes at an enormous cost financially and socially.

In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the many expenses associated with imprisoning so many people and look at ways the criminal justice system could be reformed to reduce costs while still keeping communities safe.

The Overall Price Tag of Incarceration

The total cost of incarceration in America is staggering. According to a 2020 Vera Institute of Justice report, the aggregate cost of prisons and jails in the U.S. in fiscal year 2017 was $182 billion. This includes expenses borne by federal, state and local governments.

To put this figure in perspective, the total cost of incarceration in 2017 exceeded the combined budgets for welfare ($179B), education ($107B) and transportation ($96B) for that same year. While crime and punishment are necessary aspects of society, many experts argue that America’s approach to criminal justice and emphasis on incarceration is financially unsustainable.

Average Cost Per Inmate

The overall price tag covers around 2.2 million people behind bars. When this total expenditure is broken down to the cost per inmate, the numbers are still quite high, especially at the state prison level.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost per inmate for a state prison in 2017 was $33,274 per year. This cost per inmate varies widely by state, ranging from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high of $69,355 in New York.

For local jails, which typically have higher turnover and house inmates for shorter periods than state prisons, the average annual cost per inmate in 2017 was $25,782. The cost per federal prison inmate averaged $36,299 for fiscal year 2017.

Key Drivers of High Incarceration Costs

What makes the cost of imprisonment so expensive in America? There are several key factors that drive these high expenses year after year.


Staffing prison facilities is incredibly labor-intensive. Positions like corrections officers and other security personnel account for around half of state prison expenditures. Housing, feeding, supervising and providing healthcare for prisoners requires large numbers of full-time employees working 24/7.

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The average ratio of prisoners to staff in state facilities is 4-to-1. Salaries and benefits for prison staff comprise roughly 40% of per-inmate costs.


Providing healthcare for the incarcerated population is constitutionally mandatory and adds substantial costs into the system. Prisoners tend to be in worse health than the general public due to histories of poverty, drug addiction and inadequate access to care.

Managing prisoners’ physical and mental health issues requires medical staff and facilities. Approximately 20% of state prison expenditures go towards medical care. Certain treatments like hepatitis C drugs and surgeries can cost tens of thousands per inmate. Elderly prisoners also have higher average healthcare costs.

Security Measures

Keeping prisoners secured and preventing violence requires investment in security infrastructure and technology. State prisons spend around 10% of their budgets on safety and security measures.

Watch towers, perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, scanners, restraints, riot gear and other security measures all add up in costs over time. Newer prisons are being designed with the latest technologies to try to limit contraband and opportunities for violence.

Quality of Life Investments

While prison conditions are by no means luxurious, there are certain investments made to provide basic quality of life for prisoners. Educational and vocational programming opportunities exist in many facilities to help inmates improve themselves.

Recreational and sports facilities, commissary items, televisions, and library materials offer small comforts and incentives for good behavior as well. While minimal, these types of programs and amenities do factor into the overall cost of running a prison.

The Punishment Cost Per Crime

Another way to consider the high cost of incarceration is to look at how much punishment we are doling out per crime committed. While this is difficult to calculate precisely, some estimates provide insight.

According to reporting by Marketplace, the average cost to incarcerate someone for one year in California is around $75,000. The average property crime results in less than $1,000 in losses. For more serious crimes like murder, loss of life is incalculable.

However, with the average prison sentence for murder around 20-25 years, we are spending approximately $1.5 million to punish that crime through incarceration.

While the justice system must punish crimes and keep dangerous individuals off the streets, the punishment price tag we are paying as a society raises questions about balancing costs, public safety and true justice.

Recidivism Adds Future Expenses

One reason the cost of incarceration remains so high year after year is recidivism. Approximately 40% of released prisoners end up back in jail or prison within 3 years. This cycling in and out of the criminal justice system keeps incarceration numbers and costs high.

The reasons inmates reoffend and return to prison are complex. Some common factors are lack of rehabilitation in prison, challenges reintegrating into society, lack of job skills and opportunities, and underlying mental health and addiction issues.

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Each time someone re-enters the prison system, it adds more cumulative expenses for taxpayers. According to one estimate, reducing recidivism rates by just 10% could save states $635 million per year in reincarceration costs.

Specific Example: Murder Conviction Costs

To illustrate the high cost of incarceration further, let’s look at a specific example – the cost to punish a murder conviction in California over 25 years.

According to a Vera Institute study, it costs an average of $81,458 per year to house an inmate in California state prison. For a 25 year sentence, the total cost would be:

$81,458 per year x 25 years = $2,036,450 total

At San Quentin State Prison, California’s only facility with a death row for men, the annual cost per inmate averages around $90,000 due to heightened security for maximum security.

For a 25 year sentence, the estimated total at San Quentin would be:

$90,000 per year x 25 years = $2,250,000 total

So in California, keeping someone imprisoned for 25 years under a murder conviction costs taxpayers between $2 and $2.25 million.

And this does not even include added costs for trials, appeals or health care expenses. While incarceration is necessary for serious crimes, the compounding costs over decades present a huge financial burden.

Policy Reform Options to Reduce Costs

With the heavy and growing burden mass incarceration places on government budgets, policymakers and experts have proposed various reforms aimed at reducing costs while preserving public safety. Some of the options include:

Sentencing Reforms

Adjusting mandatory minimum sentences and increasing judicial discretion in sentencing could potentially lower incarceration lengths and reduce overall imprisonment costs. Given that long-term sentences are most expensive, small reductions in average length of stay could yield decent savings.

Reduce Recidivism

Focusing more resources on transition, rehabilitation and vocational programs could help released prisoners integrate successfully and lower recidivism rates, reducing future re-incarceration costs. Improving education and health care inside prisons can also help.

Reduce Pretrial Detention

Jail costs add significantly to the overall bill even though stays are shorter. Reducing pretrial detention for low-level alleged offenders could curb jail populations and costs without endangering public safety.

Decriminalize Minor Offenses

Lessening penalties for minor possession drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes could divert many away from jails and prisons altogether. Fines or intervention programs could replace incarceration.

Private Prisons

Some research shows private prison facilities can operate at a lower daily cost than government-run institutions. However, the overall impact on spending is questionable, and privatization has been controversial.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes to make incarceration much cheaper without sacrificing standards and safety. But it is clear that America’s high incarceration rates are financially and socially unsustainable. Reducing incarceration while preserving public safety should be an urgent priority.

Notable U.S. Prison Sentences and Costs

To provide examples of real lengthy prison sentences and their costs, here is a table of several notable cases:

DefendantCrimePrison SentenceEstimated Cost
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud150 years$2.2 million
Eric RudolphOlympic bombingLife sentence$2 million
Lee Boyd MalvoDC sniper shootingsLife sentence$2.25 million
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmánDrug traffickingLife sentence + 30 years$2 million+
Larry NassarSex abuse of minors175 years$2.25 million+

These examples help illustrate just how expensive it is to administer long prison sentences in America, even life sentences. Taxpayers foot the enormous bill for housing and caring for inmates serving decades behind bars.

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While punishment fits the crime in these severe cases, they show the extreme costs tied to our incarceration system and long sentences. Even at $50,000 per year, a 50 year sentence reaches $2.5 million.

Frequently Asked Questions on Incarceration Costs

Here are answers to some common questions about the cost of imprisoning people in the United States:

How much does it cost to keep someone in prison for life?

Based on average annual costs, imprisoning someone for life costs between $1.5 million to $2.5 million or more depending on the state. Health care costs for aging inmates can increase yearly expenses. Life sentences are extremely expensive for taxpayers.

How much does it cost to put an inmate to death?

Estimates for death penalty case costs tend to be much higher than incarceration. One study showed an average death penalty case in California cost $1.1 million more than a life-without-parole case. Another study found total death penalty case costs were approximately $3 million per person.

Does the government pay for all prison costs?

State and federal governments pay around 90% of all incarceration costs in the U.S. Local governments pick up the remaining share, mostly for jails. A small percentage is paid by inmate commissary funds and other sources like prison industry wages.

Are prisons free to build?

No, prison construction costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars depending on size and security level. While variable, one source estimates new prison construction averages around $50,000 per bed. Operating costs add millions more per year.

Could prisons save money by growing their own food?

Prisons do save some money by having inmate farms, bakeries and gardens that provide basic food items for mess halls. But the overall cost savings are negligible given the scale of incarceration. Significant staffing is still required to oversee these operations.


The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation, at an alarming financial cost. While incarceration is necessary and justified in many cases, America’s excessive reliance on prisons to punish every crime carries a steep price tag.

The billions spent annually on incarceration could likely be far better leveraged for crime prevention, rehabilitation, education, mental health and drug treatment. Reprioritizing budgets and sensibly reducing inmate populations could potentially save taxpayer money and benefit society more effectively.

Ultimately there are no easy solutions. But clear analysis of the multi-billion dollar cost burden of mass incarceration shows that reforms are needed in America’s approach to criminal justice. Rethinking sentencing policies, improving prisons’ rehabilitative capacities, and investing in communities all offer possibilities for a more practical way forward.

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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