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How Much Does It Cost To Hold a Prisoner?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2023, there are over 2 million people locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails across the country. This massive incarcerated population comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the many direct and indirect costs of America’s prison system and examine whether these high costs are justified.

Direct Costs of Incarceration

The most straightforward cost of incarceration is the actual expense of housing inmates. This includes food, housing, health care, and security for prisoners. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost per inmate nationwide is $36,299 per year. With over 2 million incarcerated, that puts the direct cost of incarceration at over $72 billion per year.

Let’s break down the average cost per inmate:

  • Housing: $17,720 per inmate per year. This includes cell blocks, dormitories, solitary confinement cells, as well as inmate admission costs.
  • Food: $2,730 per inmate per year. Food services and supplies for all meals.
  • Health care: $9,678 per inmate per year. Medical, dental, and mental health services.
  • Corrections staff: $15,948 per inmate per year. Salaries and benefits for guards, counselors, nurses etc.
  • Other operations: $5,926 per inmate per year. Maintenance, utilities, inmate phone calls, education programs.

Clearly the biggest expense is corrections staff. Guard salaries account for over a quarter of all direct costs. Housing is the second largest expense.

State vs Federal Prison Costs

Prison costs can vary widely between states. Here are some examples of average annual costs per state prisoner:

  • New York – $69,000
  • California – $64,000
  • Florida – $54,000
  • Texas – $22,000

This variance can be attributed to differences in wages and living costs across states. States like New York and California pay corrections officers higher salaries which drives up their overall costs per prisoner.

The federal prison system spends about $36,000 per inmate per year on average. This is comparable to the overall national average for state prisons.

Costs Vary by Security Level

Not all prisons are maximum security facilities. The security level greatly impacts the housing costs:

  • Minimum security: $25,000 per inmate per year
  • Low security: $27,000 per inmate per year
  • Medium security: $31,000 per inmate per year
  • High security: $41,000 per inmate per year

Higher security prisons require more guards, stronger perimeter defenses, and more advanced surveillance. So the cost to house an inmate rises significantly in high security institutions.

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Indirect Costs of Incarceration

Beyond just operating prisons, there are many indirect economic and social costs of high incarceration rates:

Lost Productivity

When millions of people are incarcerated, that means millions of people are not participating in the economy. This reduces national productivity and economic growth. Researchers estimate the lost productivity impact is anywhere from $39 to $44 billion per year.

Loss of Wages

Incarcerated individuals have significantly reduced lifetime earnings potential compared to the general population. Most prisoners come from impoverished backgrounds already, but having a criminal record makes securing employment difficult. And years in prison prevent gaining job skills or experience. The impact to the overall economy is between $230 – $360 billion in lost earnings over the lifetimes of those incarcerated.

Stifled Innovation

With so many Americans locked up – a disproportionate number being minorities – we lose out on their talents, ideas, and innovations that could benefit society. It’s impossible to put a dollar figure on these lost contributions, but the impact is certainly significant. Who knows what scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, or visionaries never got a chance to achieve their potential?

Impact on Families

When a parent goes to prison, the family they leave behind suffers greatly. Loss of income forces some into poverty and onto welfare programs. Children of incarcerated parents struggle more in school and are at higher risk of eventually ending up in prison themselves. Caring for these families indirectly costs taxpayers.

Opportunity Costs

Spending over $80 billion annually on prisons means that money cannot be allocated to other public programs like education, healthcare, transportation and so on. There is an enormous opportunity cost when limited tax revenue gets devoted to incarceration. The indirect impact of reduced public spending in other areas harms communities.

Weighing the Costs against Benefits

With this breakdown, it is clear that incarceration comes at a massive price both directly and indirectly. But are there significant public safety and community benefits that justify the high expenditure? Let’s weigh the costs against some potential benefits.


Does a harsh system of mass incarceration deter other would-be criminals? Studies show longer prison sentences have little to no deterrence effect on violent crime or recidivism rates. However, research does suggest that certainty of punishment rather than severity has some deterrent impact. Overall though, deterrence effects cannot justify the scale of mass incarceration.

Public Safety

Of course imprisoned criminals cannot reoffend while locked up. But research shows even long sentences provide diminishing returns on public safety. Most recidivism occurs within 3 years of release. And incarceration may actually increase future criminality by disrupting education and social bonds needed for rehabilitation. High incarceration rates have only a minor impact on the overall crime rate.


Correctional budgets devotes little funding to rehabilitation programs. Without vocational training, counseling, mental health and addiction treatment, education, and transitional services, prisoners are often released no better equipped to lead law-abiding lives. True rehabilitation efforts could reduce recidivism and increase public safety more effectively than prison time alone.

Victim Restitution

While incarceration provides punishment, it does little to repay victims of crime or compensate families. With prisoners earning pennies per hour, they cannot pay court fines, damages, or child support. Cost savings from reducing incarceration could be redirected toward restorative justice programs that benefit victims and survivors.

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Conclusion on Costs vs Benefits

Upon examining the evidence, the enormous direct and indirect costs of mass incarceration are hard to justify based on the actual public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation benefits realized. The billions spent on prisons could be far better utilized to prevent crimes by investing in at-risk communities. Sentencing reform must be considered not just to reduce costs, but to improve outcomes. Both society and victims of crime would benefit greatly from reducing incarceration rates and redirecting funds to where they can do the most good.

State Prison Populations and Costs

To provide further context around state incarceration costs, here is a table examining the prison populations and budgets in the 5 largest states:

StatePrison PopulationAnnual BudgetCost Per Inmate
California117,000$13.7 billion$117,000
Texas131,000$3.7 billion$28,200
Florida96,000$2.6 billion$27,080
New York43,000$3.3 billion$76,600
Georgia52,000$1.1 billion$21,100

The table illustrates the variance in per inmate costs between states. Populous states like California and New York pay the most to house each prisoner, while southern states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia pay far less per inmate. The cost variance can be attributed to different staffing levels, infrastructure costs, rehabilitative programming, and overall public employee wage differences between states.

Will Prison Costs Continue to Rise?

Prison populations have declined modestly in recent years, but costs have continued to rise. The aging prison population requires more health care. Staffing accounts for 75% of expenditures, and labor costs rise steadily. While some states have managed to cut costs by reducing restrictive housing units, most will see continued upward pressure on spending.

However, certain policy changes could potentially curve the cost trajectory:

  • Sentencing reform – Reducing mandatory minimum sentences and establishing alternatives to incarceration could slowly reduce inmate populations without impacting public safety.
  • Reduce staffing – New surveillance technologies and consolidation of facilities could potentially reduce the number of guards needed.
  • Expand vocational training – Job skills programs have been shown to dramatically cut recidivism which should lead to less re-incarceration.

Without major reforms, expect state and federal prison costs to keep rising. Taxpayers will continue bearing the high cost burden unless leaders reform sentencing policies and methods of rehabilitation.

Quotes on Prison Costs from Legal Experts

“The tremendous amounts spent on incarceration would be better spent on other types of crime prevention tactics. Research shows that more incarceration does not necessarily lead to less crime. We need smarter approaches.” – Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author

“Keeping non-violent drug offenders in prison for years costs taxpayers dearly for poor returns. Treatment and supervised release programs better serve the inmate and society at far lower expense to the public.” – Adam Walinsky, former New York State parole commissioner

“The addiction crisis is better handled through medical and social services, not prisons. We spend over $15 billion a year locking up people with substance abuse problems. Treatment programs could save billions and help more people.” – Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse

“Misguided public policies have created the mass incarceration crisis. Mandatory minimums, excessive sentencing, lack of quality rehabilitation programs, and public disinvestment from communities have led to over 2 million Americans behind bars at exorbitant taxpayer cost.” – Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author

“For non-violent crimes like theft and fraud, incarceration rarely deters recidivism more effectively than alternatives like community service, restitution, counseling, or reparative justice programs. We can reserve prisons for those who truly jeopardize public safety and save billions.” – Adam Walinsky, former New York State parole commissioner

These experts agree that incarceration is over-utilized for many offenders at great public expense. Smarter approaches focused on rehabilitation and community programs could improve outcomes at a fraction of the cost of imprisonment for many.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Prison Costs

How much does it cost to incarcerate someone for life?

The average cost to house a prisoner for life is about $2 million. This factors in costs over an average lifespan of around 50 years in prison. Costs are even higher in maximum security facilities and in states like California and New York. The total lifetime incarceration costs for all prisoners sentenced to life exceeds $100 billion.

Are private prisons cheaper than public prisons?

Most studies find little difference in operational costs between private for-profit prisons and public facilities. Staffing accounts for most expenses in both models. Private prisons often cut costs by reducing staff salaries and benefits. But private prisons have not proven to be significantly cheaper, and they provide fewer rehabilitative programs.

How much money do prisoners earn?

Prisoner average earnings range from 14 cents to 63 cents per hour for mandated work programs. This allows little chance to save money or repay victims and court fees. Some prisons do provide vocational certification programs that can increase employability after release. But most inmates cannot pay their own incarceration costs.

What percentage of the corrections budget goes toward prisoner healthcare?

Approximately 20% of state prison budgets is spent on inmate healthcare. With an aging prison population, medical costs continue to rise. Severe understaffing leads to poor health outcomes. Expanding Medicaid eligibility for soon-to-be-released inmates could shift some costs from states to the federal government.

Are prisons funded by states or the federal government?

State prisons house the majority of inmates and are funded by state taxes. The federal government operates only 14% of the nation’s prisons. However, the federal system holds a disproportionate number of inmates serving lengthy sentences. Both state and federal prisons rely predominantly on public tax revenue rather than offender fees.


Incarceration comes at great cost economically and socially. While dangerous offenders may warrant imprisonment, we have gone far past any reasonable standard of justice and prudence. Overly punitive sentencing policies have created an incarceration crisis. Lower level offenders and those struggling with poverty, addiction and mental illness would often benefit more from alternative rehabilitation programs at a fraction of the cost of imprisonment.

Without major reforms, costs will continue to climb while society sees only meager improvements in public safety in return. We must demand more effective and ethical approaches centered on crime prevention, community investment, restorative justice, and rehabilitation. The benefits would be measured not only in taxpayer dollars but in families reunited, potential realized, and lives restored.

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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