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How Much Does It Cost To Put Someone In Prison?

The cost of imprisoning criminals in the United States is remarkably high. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost to incarcerate one inmate in prison for one year is $31,977. The total cost to taxpayers to keep over 1.5 million people behind bars is over $50 billion per year.

This money could be better spent on rehabilitation, education, mental health treatment, and other programs aimed at reducing recidivism and improving communities.

Key Factors Driving Up Prison Costs

Several factors contribute to the high costs of running prisons and jails across the country:


Staff salaries and benefits make up a significant portion of correctional budgets, with some states spending over 70% on personnel costs alone. Guards, nurses, counselors, administrators and other staff are necessary to run these facilities safely and securely. However, state prisons have seen a 16% increase in staffing since 2000 while the prison population has only risen by 10%. Some critics argue prisons are overstaffed.


Incarcerated individuals have a constitutional right to healthcare. Meeting the medical, dental, and mental health needs of inmates adds considerably to operational costs. A study found that per inmate healthcare spending increased from $3,802 in 2000 to $5,482 in 2008. Many inmates have complex chronic medical conditions that require expensive treatments. Mentally ill inmates often require therapy and medication as well.

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Security Technology

Maintaining safety and security requires investment in cameras, x-ray machines, metal detectors, uniforms, riot gear, and other security technology. Some states have also built supermax facilities to house dangerous inmates which cost significantly more to operate.


Building and maintaining facilities is hugely expensive, especially jails and prisons in cities with high property values. The average cost to build one new high-security prison cell in the U.S. was $34,000 to $36,000.

Food, Supplies, Utilities

Providing inmates with basic necessities like food, clothing, laundry, electricity further adds to the costs. Some states spend over $2,000 per inmate just on food each year.

Rehabilitation Programs

While rehabilitation and vocational programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, they require resources to operate. Very few inmates have access to these services due to lack of funding.

State Variation in Prison Costs

Prison costs can vary widely between states based on demographics, facilities, capacities, staffing levels, inmate healthcare needs, and state budget priorities.


States with older prison facilities tend to have higher maintenance costs. Building new modern prisons can reduce long-term expenses.

Contracted Prisons

Some states save money by contracting with private companies to operate prisons. Others rely entirely on state-run facilities.

Geographic Location

Staff salaries and real estate costs in cities drive up prison expenses in some states like New York and California. Rural prisons are generally more affordable to operate.

Economies of Scale

States with larger prison populations can save more through economies of scale on shared services. Smaller states have fewer inmates across whom to distribute fixed costs.


The healthcare needs of inmates can vary greatly by state depending on demographics, chronic conditions, mental illness rates, and an aging prison population.

Rehabilitation Programs

While more costly up front, states investing in rehabilitation like vocational training and therapy can save money long-term through lower recidivism.

Table of Notable Crimes and Costs

Here is a table of some recent high-profile crimes and the estimated costs to incarcerate the convicted criminals based on average costs in their states:

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CrimeCriminalStateEstimated Cost Per YearPotential Total Cost
Ponzi Scheme$150 million fraudBernie MadoffNew York$60,000>$2 million
Child Sex AbuseMolested 10+ minorsLarry NassarMichigan$40,000>$1 million
Treason and EspionageShared classified documentsChelsea ManningKansas$27,000>$1 million
Tax FraudHid $400 million in incomeWesley SnipesPennsylvania$42,000>$1 million
Dog Fighting RingRan interstate dog fightsMichael VickVirginia$25,000>$2 million
Financial FraudRan $65 billion Ponzi schemeBernie MadoffNew York$60,000Over $2 million

This table illustrates how much taxpayers spend to keep famous convicted criminals behind bars. Most will cost over $1 million during their lengthy sentences. Madoff’s 150 year sentence means he could cost over $2 million himself.

Quotes on Prison Costs from Legal Experts

“We need to have a national conversation about why it costs $30,000 a year to imprison someone and only $20,000 a year to send them to Harvard.” – Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative

“Keeping inmates in prison after they are too old or infirm to pose a threat to society serves no legitimate law enforcement purpose. It’s just waste without any offsetting benefit.” – Adam Gelb, The Pew Charitable Trusts

“It costs so much money to house prisoners, and the average person who goes to prison usually can’t pay a dime toward that. It comes out of taxpayer money, and it costs way more money to keep someone in prison than it would to help them turn their lives around.” – Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

“If taxpayers knew how much they were spending to incarcerate people, we’d have a different attitude toward spending money to help children, families, and communities.” – Van Jones, CNN political contributor

“The billions of dollars spent annually to imprison people are taking critical funding away from education, social services, and jobs programs that would allow poor communities to flourish.” – Michelle Alexander

These experts highlight how excessive prison costs cut into state budgets and take funding away from preventing crime through rehabilitation and community investment.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to 5 common questions about the cost of prisons and prisoners in the US:

How much does it cost to put someone in prison for a year?

The average cost to imprison an inmate is around $32,000 per year, but can range from $15,000 to over $60,000 depending on the state. The total cost for all prisoners per year nationwide is over $50 billion.

What is the most expensive prison to operate?

The most expensive prison in the US is the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City. It costs about $209,000 per inmate per year due to its location in Manhattan and need for heightened security to hold high-risk federal detainees before trial.

Do prisoners pay for their own incarceration costs?

No, prisoners do not pay the costs of their imprisonment. Some captive workers may earn pennies per hour with jobs, but all expenses are covered by taxpayer dollars. About 20 states allow billing inmates small fees.

Could prisons save money by reforming the system?

Yes, experts believe reforming sentencing laws, expanding rehabilitation and vocational programs, releasing elderly/non-violent inmates early, improving mental healthcare, and reducing overcrowding could significantly lower per inmate costs.

What are the biggest drivers of high prison costs?

Staff salaries, healthcare, security technology/equipment, prison construction and physical plant costs, rehabilitation programs, and basics like food, supplies, and utilities combine to make operating prisons extremely expensive.


The cost of mass incarceration in America has become unsustainable and detracts funds from programs that could prevent crime and reduce recidivism. While law and order must be maintained, reforming the prison system could significantly lower costs per inmate. Investing more in communities, rehabilitation, mental health treatment, and vocational training could improve public safety in a more cost-effective manner. Rethinking lengthy mandatory minimum sentences could also reduce prison populations. There are better uses for the over $50 billion spent annually to house inmates than merely warehousing criminals with no focus on rehabilitation. With common-sense reforms, rates of incarceration could be lowered and costs reduced while still serving the interests of justice.

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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