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How Much Does It Cost To Incarcerate a Prisoner?

Mass incarceration in the United States has become an epidemic, with over 2 million people behind bars and billions spent annually to keep them there. But how much exactly does it cost taxpayers to incarcerate someone? The answer may surprise you. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the various factors that contribute to the exorbitant costs of our prison system and why reform is urgently needed.

Average Cost Per Inmate

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost to incarcerate one inmate in prison for one year is $31,286. However, this figure varies widely between states. For example, it costs New York state around $69,000 per year to house a single prisoner. On the other hand, states like Louisiana spend about $16,800 per inmate annually.

With over 2 million behind bars, the United States spends about $60 billion per year on its prison system. This equates to around $182 per U.S. resident. To put this in perspective, the average annual cost to incarcerate someone is nearly the same as one year of tuition at a public university.

Key Cost Drivers

So what accounts for the high price tag to keep someone incarcerated? There are several key factors that drive these excessive costs:


The most expensive aspect is staffing and human resources. Salaries and benefits for prison staff account for about 60% of costs per inmate. With over 400,000 full-time staff nationwide, the aggregated payroll is enormous. Prisons must maintain high staff-to-inmate ratios for security reasons.


Incarcerated individuals have a constitutional right to healthcare. With a disproportionate number of prisoners requiring mental health treatment and having chronic medical conditions, medical expenses are steep. Healthcare accounts for about 18% of spending per inmate.

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Building and maintaining prisons is hugely expensive. Real estate, utilities, equipment and other capital costs contribute to rising expenditures, especially as facilities age.

Food & Supplies

Feeding, clothing, securing and meeting the basic needs of millions of prisoners adds up. Food, supplies and sundry expenses make up 12% of per inmate costs.

Programs & Services

Rehabilitation and vocational programs, education, and addiction treatment are woefully underfunded but still carry a moderately high price tag. About 10% of spending goes towards services aimed at reducing recidivism.

Costs By Security Level

Prison costs scale significantly depending on the security level and types of facilities:

  • Minimum security – $20,000 per inmate annually
  • Low security – $30,000 per inmate annually
  • Medium security – $40,000 per inmate annually
  • High security – $60,000 per inmate annually
  • Supermax – $75,000 per inmate annually

Understandably, it costs far more to run maximum security prisons, which require advanced surveillance, defense systems and higher staffing levels. Nonviolent offenders could be diverted to cheaper minimum security facilities to alleviate costs.

Major Cost Drivers Over Time

Prison expenditures have skyrocketed in recent decades due to policies that increased incarceration rates and lengths of stay:

1980s – War on Drugs

Stiffer drug penalties caused inmate populations to balloon, overcrowding facilities. Costs surged.

1990s – Truth in Sentencing

Laws required inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences, keeping them jailed longer. Costs rose sharply.

2000s – Sentencing Enhancements

Harsher sentences like “three strikes” laws boosted average lengths of stay. Incarceration costs continued climbing.

While costs steadily increased, funding for rehabilitation programs was cut. This created a dysfunctional and expensive system.

State Variations in Cost

The table below displays significant variations in the annual cost per state to incarcerate a prisoner:

StateCost Per Inmate
New York$69,355
Rhode Island$53,955
New Mexico$20,756
South Dakota$11,317

This table illustrates how location, policies, facilities, and wages impact per inmate expenditures. Rural states tend to have much lower costs than urban coastal ones. However, as the data shows, there are exceptions like Alaska where expenses run high.

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Shocking Number of “Lifers”

Another factor propelling prison costs higher is the sheer number of inmates serving life sentences. Over 200,000 people, or one out of seven prisoners, are serving life terms. Some disturbing statistics about lifers:

  • Over 50,000 are serving life without parole.
  • Nearly 12,000 were sentenced to life for nonviolent offenses.
  • Over 7,300 were sentenced to life as juveniles.
  • The average lifer will cost taxpayers over $2 million during incarceration.
  • Women lifers have increased 25-fold since the 1970s.

Keeping rising numbers of prisoners locked up until they die costs taxpayers dearly over the long run. Revisiting draconian sentencing policies could potentially alleviate these unsustainable expenditures.

Case Study: Nonviolent Drug Offender

To illustrate the severe budget impact of lengthy sentences, let’s examine a typical case:

John Smith was convicted of selling a small quantity of illegal drugs at age 25. He had no prior violent criminal history. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing, John received a 20 year prison sentence.

Over his term, taxpayers will spend around $620,000 to incarcerate John. He will be locked up during his most productive wage-earning years. Upon release at age 45, John will have little savings and dim prospects.

Had John been diverted to a less expensive rehabilitation program instead, taxpayers could have saved over half a million dollars. These funds could have been invested into schools, infrastructure or health programs rather than wasted for years locking up a nonviolent offender.

Quotes on Prison Costs from Reform Advocates

Many experts agree that reforming sentencing guidelines could curb prison expenditures significantly. Here are some notable quotes highlighting this viewpoint:

“If we reduce our swollen prison population by just 8 percent, we could save $423 million a year.” – Texas State Senator John Whitmire

“Incarcerating people we are mad at, rather than those we are really afraid of, is fiscally irresponsible.” – Neill Franklin, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

“It costs $1 million to keep someone in prison for life. I’d rather see that $1 million go for things like education, prenatal care, care for the elderly, more drug treatment programs, more mental health services – all things that positively impact the quality of life.” – Bryan Stevenson, Founder of Equal Justice Initiative

“It costs about $2.5 million to care for a juvenile for life, and only $1.1 million to provide health care for a mother and her children for life. With money running out for everything from schools to hospitals, continuing to waste money on failed drug war tactics makes no sense.” – Ari Rosmarin, Public Policy Director of American Civil Liberties Union

These experts contend that reforms to eliminate extreme sentencing and expand diversion programs could cut billions in costs and shift funding to more productive public services.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How much more does the U.S. spend on prisons than other countries?

The U.S. spends significantly more on incarceration than any other nation, to the tune of $182 billion annually. On a per prisoner basis, U.S. spending is 3-7 times higher than countries like Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

Does it really cost over $30,000 per year on average to house an inmate?

Yes, according to the Department of Justice and other sources, it costs around $31,000 – $60,000 annually depending on the state and security level. Staffing accounts for most costs. Healthcare, facilities, food and programs make up the balance.

What are some solutions proposed to lower incarceration costs?

Reforms such as eliminating mandatory minimums, decriminalizing minor offenses, improving rehabilitation programs, and releasing elderly or reformed prisoners could significantly reduce expenditures. Some states have already enacted such measures.

Doesn’t building more prisons create jobs and help the economy?

While prison construction provides temporary jobs, reducing incarceration and redirecting funds to education, healthcare or infrastructure would likely result in more permanent societal benefits. Money spent on locking up millions is not the most productive use of taxpayer dollars.

Are private prisons cheaper to operate than government-run facilities?

Most research shows little significant savings from private prisons, which still rely heavily on taxpayer funding. Some studies indicate they may even cost more in some cases when all factors are considered. Private prisons have been very controversial and make up only a small fraction of overall facilities.


In summary, the excessive overspending on prisons is enormously wasteful, especially for nonviolent offenders. The U.S. urgently needs major sentencing reform, improved rehabilitation programs, expanded alternative sanctions, and smarter justice policies.

Shifting funds from incarceration towards education, mental health services, addiction treatment and economic development will benefit society far more in the long run. By reforming draconian laws, upgrading corrections practices, and only incarcerating the most dangerous criminals, we can sharply curtail prison costs while building safer and more just communities.

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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