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How Much Does It Cost To Maintain a Prisoner?

The cost of maintaining prisoners is a significant expense for governments around the world. With rising incarceration rates, this cost continues to increase each year. Understanding where these costs come from and how much taxpayers spend to keep people behind bars provides important context on this complex issue.

Key Factors Driving Upkeep Costs for Inmates

Several key factors contribute to the high costs of keeping inmates incarcerated. These include expenses related to:

Food and Housing

Providing food, clothing, and shelter for prisoners drives up costs substantially. Inmates require basic necessities, and facilities must meet certain standards related to living conditions. Feeding, clothing, and housing a single inmate can cost over $30,000 per year in some states.


Incarcerated individuals are entitled to healthcare under the law. This includes medical, dental, and mental health services. Many inmates have complex health needs, which are more expensive to treat. Chronic conditions, substance abuse disorders, and medications add to per inmate healthcare costs.

Staffing and Facilities

Maintaining prisons requires extensive staffing, from corrections officers to administrative workers. Salaries and benefits for employees represent a major portion of operating costs. The infrastructure and maintenance of facilities is another significant expenditure. As prisons age, repairs and upgrades add to the overall price tag.

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Programs and Services

Many prisons offer rehabilitation programs, educational services, vocational training, and other support systems for inmates. Funding these initiatives further raises the costs per prisoner. Some of these programs have been shown to reduce recidivism rates, however.

Security Measures

Creating secure facilities and preventing dangerous situations inside prisons requires thorough safety protocols. Advanced security technology, surveillance systems, weapons detectors, and perimeter fencing contribute to overhead costs as well.

Average Costs to House State and Federal Inmates

The average costs for maintaining individual inmates varies greatly by jurisdiction. Here are some figures outlining those costs:

State Prisons

  • California – $81,458 per inmate annually
  • New York – $69,355 per inmate annually
  • Florida – $54,865 per inmate annually
  • Texas – $22,012 per inmate annually
  • Louisiana – $16,800 per inmate annually

The national average for states is around $33,274 per inmate. Higher costs in states like California and New York are driven by large prison employee salaries and benefits. Also, daily operational expenses are higher in these states.

Federal Prisons

  • Minimum security – $21,006 per inmate annually
  • Low security – $26,247 per inmate annually
  • Medium security – $31,976 per inmate annually
  • High security – $36,299 per inmate annually

The average for all federal prisons is $36,299 per inmate per year. Higher security facilities have more staff, infrastructure needs, and advanced technologies that increase housing costs.

How Prison Populations Impact Maintenance Costs

With over 2 million people incarcerated in America, the aggregate costs to taxpayers are in the billions. Some key figures on overall prison populations and budgets:

  • Total state prison population – 1,291,000 inmates
  • Total federal prison population – 153,000 inmates
  • Total state prison expenditures – $50 billion per year
  • Total federal prison budget – $6.7 billion per year
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In recent decades, tough-on-crime policies and mandatory minimum sentences have swelled inmate populations. While costs per prisoner have somewhat leveled off, the overall expense has risen dramatically due to more incarcerated individuals. Some sentencing reforms and alternatives to imprisonment are aimed at reducing this burden.

Notable Criminal Cases and the Costs to Incarcerate

Reviewing high-profile criminal cases provides examples of how much taxpayers spend to imprison notorious offenders. The costs below are based on average annual expenses by jurisdiction:

Charles Manson

  • Convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder
  • Spent 46 years incarcerated in California prisons
  • Estimated cost: $3.8 million

“Society made me what I am, and that’s its fault.” – Charles Manson

Bernie Madoff

  • Convicted of securities fraud, investment advisor fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, and perjury
  • Sentenced to 150 years in federal prison
  • Estimated cost if served full sentence: $5.4 million

“I am actually grateful for this opportunity to publicly comment about my crimes, for which I am deeply sorry and ashamed.” – Bernie Madoff

John Wayne Gacy

  • Convicted of rape and 33 counts of murder
  • Spent 14 years on death row in Illinois before his execution
  • Estimated cost: $1.5 million

“The dead won’t bother you, it’s the living you have to worry about.” – John Wayne Gacy

El Chapo

  • Convicted as a drug kingpin responsible for trafficking billions in illegal narcotics
  • Currently serving life in a Colorado federal prison
  • Estimated lifetime cost: $2 million

“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.” – El Chapo

The substantial amount it takes to imprison these types of notorious criminals spotlights the high costs when sentences stretch for years or decades.

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Frequently Asked Questions on Prisoner Upkeep Costs

How do prisoner costs compare with average Americans?

The amount spent on inmate necessities far surpasses average costs for citizens. In California, it costs over $114,000 per inmate annually compared to around $50,000 for a college student and $28,000 for the average senior citizen.

Where does the money come from to operate prisons?

States predominantly use general fund tax revenues to run prison systems. The federal system is funded through the Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons budget approved by Congress. Some costs are recouped through inmate work programs.

Are any alternatives more cost-effective than incarceration?

Some sentencing alternatives like probation, diversion programs, or halfway houses cost a fraction compared to imprisoning offenders. However, alternatives are not suitable for violent criminals. Rehabilitation programs inside prisons can also reduce recidivism.

How much do prisons spend on inmate healthcare?

Over $12 billion is spent on prisoner healthcare representing about a third of operating costs. Many inmates have chronic conditions that are expensive to manage.

Could private prisons help reduce costs?

Privatized prisons have not substantially lowered costs, especially when factoring in contractor fees and high staff turnover. Private facilities still require fit-for-occupation standards.


The amount required to house, feed, and secure inmates comes at a major cost to taxpayers. With budgets stretched thin, departments of corrections still must provide for basic needs and safety. New models focused on rehabilitation over punishment could potentially lower costs and reduce reoffending rates to benefit society. But until broad reforms take hold, the expenses associated with running prisons will likely continue to rise.

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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