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How Much Does It Cost To Keep a Prisoner?

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, with another 3.6 million on probation or parole. This massive prison population comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers. In this comprehensive article, we will examine the many factors that drive up the price of incarceration and look at ways the criminal justice system could be reformed to reduce costs while still keeping communities safe.

Average Cost Per Inmate

The cost of keeping an inmate locked up varies from state to state. However, most estimates put the average cost at $30,000 to $60,000 per prisoner per year. This includes expenses such as food, housing, health care, correctional officers, facilities maintenance and utilities.

According to a 2022 Vera Institute of Justice report, the average cost per inmate was $36,299 per year across all 50 states. However, some states had much higher costs:

  • New York spent an average of $106,089 per prisoner, the highest in the nation.
  • California spent $85,858 per prisoner.
  • Washington DC spent $67,564 per inmate.

Western states with smaller populations like Wyoming ($44,163) and Alaska ($45,625) also had above average per inmate costs. On the lower end, states like Alabama ($19,185), Louisiana ($16,807), and Indiana ($18,801) had the cheapest average costs per inmate.

Factors That Drive Up Incarceration Costs

What makes the cost of housing inmates so expensive? Here are some of the main factors:

Staffing Costs

Hiring correctional officers and other staff accounts for about two-thirds of all state prison expenditures. With high employee to prisoner ratios needed to maintain security and order, personnel costs quickly add up. Salaries, health benefits, overtime pay, and pensions for staff have to be factored in.


Inmates are entitled to healthcare while in prison. With high rates of chronic disease, mental illness, and substance abuse disorders among the incarcerated population, inmate healthcare and medications are a major expense. Many inmates did not have adequate access to care before prison.

Security Level

It costs substantially more to house maximum security inmates than those classified as minimum or medium security risks. High security prisoners require more correctional officers per inmate, highly secure and often isolated facilities, and additional screening and oversight procedures.

Facility Operations and Maintenance

Operating and maintaining prison facilities is hugely expensive. Utility costs, food contracts, facility upkeep and repairs add up quickly. New facility construction costs state many millions per prison. Private prisons have similar operational costs.

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Transporting and transferring prisoners to court dates, medical appointments or between facilities costs manpower and fuel. States are required to extradite parole violators and fugitives across state lines.

Rehabilitation and Reentry Programs

Quality vocational, educational, mental health and addiction treatment programs for inmates have been shown to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism. But providing these rehabilitative services adds to overall incarceration costs.

State Prison Budgets Continue to Increase

With rising prison populations across many states, correctional budgets continue to take up an ever larger share of overall state spending. State corrections departments are one of the fastest growing costs in state budgets. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that between fiscal years 1985 and 2015:

  • State spending on prisons grew by 324%
  • Twenty nine states increased corrections spending as a share of total state funds by more than 50%

In absolute dollars, California leads the nation in prison expenditures at over $12 billion for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. However, as a share of its overall state budget, Oregon leads states at over 10% of total expenditures going to corrections costs according to Pew.

To put the level of prison spending in perspective, the Vera Institute of Justice found that in 2019, the aggregate cost of incarceration exceeded that of traditional public safety budgets. States spent a combined $38 billion on corrections but just $36 billion on police and $13 billion on courts/legal costs.

Many experts argue that too much is being allocated to incarceration versus alternative public safety approaches. However, state legislators in many states have limited options with correctional budgets mandated to meet humane standards.

Attempts to Reduce Correctional Budgets

Facing rising incarceration rates and costs, many states have gotten serious about lowering prison populations to contain corrections spending. Here are some of the main initiatives that have been undertaken:

Sentencing Reforms

Many states have enacted sentencing reforms to allow alternative sanctions, shorten sentence lengths for certain crimes, or reduce mandatory minimums. This allows inmates to be released earlier, preventing overcrowding.

Parole Reforms

Some states have changed policies to allow inmates to be paroled earlier after serving a portion of their sentence. This provides supervised release instead of continued incarceration.

Reducing Recidivism

More programming and transitional services aimed at lowering repeat offenses can reduce future incarceration costs. But expanding these reentry programs increases upfront costs.

Prison Closures

Closing costly outdated state prison facilities saves on operational costs. However, this can be controversial in rural towns where prisons often provide steady local jobs.

Private Facilities

Contracting with for-profit prison operators can in some cases cut per inmate costs compared to state-run facilities. But serious oversight issues have been raised. Many states are moving away from private prisons.

Medicaid Expansion

Allowing incarcerated individuals Medicaid coverage for healthcare services has reduced state prison medical expenditures in participating states.

Releasing Low-Level Offenders

Releasing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses early through pardon and commutation powers or emergency pandemic actions has lowered some state prison populations. But this carries risk of increased crime.

While these initiatives have slowed the growth in incarceration rates and budgets, state prison costs remain worryingly high and most state prison systems suffer from overcrowding. There are simply no easy solutions to materially lower correctional costs without compromising public safety given current high incarceration trends.

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Case Study: California’s Prison Costs

California provides an interesting example of a state that has worked aggressively to reduce its prison population and costs following a costly period of massive prison expansion. However, the state continues to grapple with complex overcrowding and budget challenges.

Prison Boom and Overcrowding Crisis

Fueled by tough on crime policies and mandatory minimum sentencing, California’s prison population soared during the 1980s and 1990s. The state continued to construct new prisons to increase capacity.

  • Prison population rose 550% between 1980 and 2006
  • New prisons opened every year from 1984 to 2005
  • Facilities designed to hold 84,000 housed 173,000 inmates by 2006
  • Severe overcrowding violated constitutional protections against cruel punishment

Massive overcrowding led to increased violence, mental health crises and facilities operating at double their capacities. With the prison system under federal oversight, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California in 2009 to reduce prison overcrowding.

Realignment and Inmate Reduction Measures

Facing court orders, California passed AB 109 or Realignment in 2011 to divert inmates to county jails instead of state prisons. Other reduction measures included:

  • Lowering penalties for nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual crimes
  • Closing prisons
  • Expanded good behavior credits to allow earlier parole
  • Reduced parole revocations
  • Sentence credits for completing rehabilitation programs
  • Prop 47 reclassifying drug and property crimes as misdemeanors
  • Earlier releases during COVID-19

These efforts lowered the prison population from 173,000 in 2006 to just under 116,000 in 2018 prior to the pandemic. The population fell further during COVID-19 releases.

Impact on Corrections Spending

Despite significant progress lowering inmate numbers, California’s prison costs remain exceptionally high at over $12 billion annually. While the average cost per inmate has fallen from a peak of $71,000, it still averaged $60,000 per prisoner pre-pandemic.

California spends 9% of its budget on corrections, more than most states. However, some of the context for persistently high costs include:

  • High operational costs with unionized correctional officer salaries 50% above U.S. median
  • Expensive healthcare with an aging prison population with chronic conditions
  • Billions spent to improve medical and mental health treatment per federal oversight
  • Renovation of aging prisons and new mental health treatment facilities
  • Ongoing costs to house inmates sent to private out of state prisons

While California has made progress reducing incarceration rates, the scale of the system continues to require massive state expenditures even to meet minimum constitutional standards. The cost implications of the current level of imprisonment on society remain staggering.

Recidivism Rates After Incarceration

A major driver of high incarceration costs is the extremely high rates at which ex-inmates reoffend, parole violations, probation revocations, and returns to prison. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked prisoners released in 2012:

  • 83% arrested within 9 years of release
  • 44% convicted of a new crime within 5 years
  • 24% resentenced to prison for either a new crime or parole violation within 5 years

This revolving door of repeat offenders continues to drive up incarceration costs. Successfully reducing recidivist rates through improved rehabilitation and reentry programs is key to permanently lowering prison populations and corrections budgets.

Notable Criminals and Cost to Incarcerate

While most state prisoners are incarcerated for low level non-violent offenses, there are also many extremely dangerous criminals serving long sentences, life without parole, or on death row. These violent offenders come at an especially high expense to house securely and humanely relative to low security prisoners.

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Here are the costs to incarcerate some of America’s most notorious active and former prisoners:

El Chapo

  • Leader of Sinaloa Cartel drug gang
  • Housed in ADX Florence Supermax Prison
  • Annual cost estimated at $20 million plus per prisoner

Ted Kaczynski

  • “Unabomber” terrorist
  • Serving 8 life sentences at ADX Florence
  • Estimated $23 million incarceration cost so far

Terry Nichols

  • Oklahoma City bomber
  • 161 life sentences at ADX Florence
  • $380,000 per year estimated cost

Charles Manson

  • Murderous cult leader
  • Died in 2017 after 48 years imprisoned in California
  • At least $2 million lifetime incarceration cost

Larry Hoover

  • Founder of Chicago “Gangster Disciples”
  • Currently ADX Florence @ $60k per year
  • Over $2.6 million cost since 1973 conviction

Even at conservative estimates, incarcerating these types of high profile violent offenders costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per prisoner.

Frequently Asked Questions on Incarceration Costs

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

For a typical inmate, it’s estimated that the average cost of a life prison term is $2.5 to $3 million total. At the high end for supermax inmates, lifetime costs can exceed $23 million per prisoner.

Do prisoners pay any of the cost of their incarceration?

Prisoners do not directly pay for the cost of their imprisonment. However, many states allow for deductions from prison work wages to reimburse victims or pay outstanding fines and fees.

Has the increase in female prisoners driven up costs?

While the female prison population has risen faster than the male prison population, women still only account for around 9% of all inmates. Overall costs are still overwhelmingly driven by male prisoners.

Could more community-based alternatives cut costs?

Alternative programs like probation, home confinement, mandatory rehab, community service, restitution, fines, and civil asset forfeiture may be cheaper sanctions than jail or prison in less serious cases.

Does the death penalty reduce incarceration costs?

The extremely lengthy appeals process in most death penalty cases makes the total costs far higher than life without parole. Executions save little money due to upfront trial costs.


The United States maintains by far the largest prison population in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars and millions more under community supervision. This massive scale of incarceration carries an enormous and rising financial burden, costing states tens of billions of dollars.

While some states have made progress reducing prison overcrowding, most prison systems remain over capacity. Correctional budgets continue to squeeze state spending on vital services like education, healthcare and infrastructure. Reformers argue that reducing incarceration rates through alternative sentencing, rehabilitation efforts, and improved conditions to lower recidivism rates could substantially lower costs without harming public safety. But undoing decades of tough on crime policies has proven extremely difficult.

With high fixed costs and legal mandates, running humane and secure prisons remains inherently expensive in the American system. Until broader public attitudes on crime and punishment evolve to enable major reductions in incarceration, the outlook is for continued high expenditures to operate secure facilities, feed, clothe, and provide healthcare for over 2 million prisoners nationwide. The criminal justice system will likely remain a major drain on government budgets for years to come.

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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