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How Much Does It Cost To Run a Prison?

The cost of running prisons in the United States is staggeringly high. With over 2 million people incarcerated, the US spends over $80 billion per year on its prison system. This amounts to an average of over $31,000 per inmate per year.

However, this cost varies widely between states and facilities. As debates continue over criminal justice reform and reducing incarceration rates, understanding the true cost of prisons is essential.

Staffing Costs Make Up the Largest Share of Prison Budgets

The biggest cost driver of running prisons is staffing them. Personnel costs including salaries, wages, benefits, pension contributions, and overtime pay makes up around 2/3 of total prison expenditures. With around 400,000 full-time correctional officers nationwide and higher staffing levels needed for maximum security facilities, these costs add up quickly.

Some key staffing costs include:

  • Correctional officers – $55,000 average salary
  • Supervisory staff – $69,000 average salary
  • Medical staff – $111,000 average salary for doctors; $47,000 average for nurses
  • Mental health professionals – $47,000 average salary
  • Food service workers – $27,000 average salary
  • Facility maintenance workers – $35,000 average salary

In total, these staffing needs make personnel by far the largest single expense for prisons, comprising 60-80% of budgets. Reducing staffing levels can cut costs but also severely impacts security, rehabilitation programs, and quality of life for inmates.

Healthcare Drives Up Per-Inmate Costs

While correctional staffing may be the biggest total line item, healthcare costs incur a huge expense per inmate. With many prisoners having complex medical, dental, and mental health needs, providing care drives up per capita costs. Healthcare for inmates costs over $12 billion nationally, averaging about $8,500 per inmate per year.

Some key healthcare costs for prisons include:

  • Medications for mental illness, HIV, diabetes, etc.
  • Medical and dental treatment from on-site doctors, dentists, and nurses
  • Security staffing needs for medical visits and hospital transfers
  • Off-site trips to medical specialists or emergency rooms
  • Medical devices like hearing aids, eyeglasses, and mobility assistance
  • End-of-life care for aging and terminally ill inmates
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The inmate population in the US is aging rapidly, with over 10% over the age of 55. Elderly inmates drive healthcare costs much higher due to increased chronic conditions. Reducing inmate healthcare costs is difficult given legal obligations to provide adequate care. Finding ways to control high prescription drug, staffing, and hospitalization costs offers the most potential savings.

Food, Utilities, and Supplies Are Also Major Cost Factors

While personnel and healthcare dominate prison budgets, other costs like food, utilities, clothing, and supplies still amount to hundreds of millions per year:

Food – Feeding over 2 million inmates three meals per day costs over $4 billion annually nationwide, averaging about $1,600 per inmate. Food costs can be around 10% of a prison’s budget.

Utilities – Heating, cooling, electricity, water, and sewage for prisons costs well over $1 billion per year total in the US. High security facilities have even greater utility expenses.

Clothing and supplies – Providing uniforms, shoes, bedding, toiletries, and other supplies for inmates costs states over $500 million per year. Televisions and recreational supplies add additional costs in many prisons.

Facility maintenance – With aging prisons requiring constant upkeep, maintenance and repairs cost over $1 billion annually nationwide. New facility construction also periodically adds major expenses.

While smaller than labor and healthcare, these other costs contribute significantly to making prisons extremely expensive to operate. When looking to curb costs, reducing food, utility, or supply expenses often impacts quality of life and rehabilitation efforts.

Unique Security Measures Drive Up Costs Significantly

Much of the high cost of running prisons comes from the need for extensive security measures to keep inmates, staff, and the public safe. These unique security expenses include:

  • Perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners
  • Correctional officers and patrols
  • Cell door and facility access control and locking systems
  • Segregated restrictive housing units for dangerous inmates
  • Isolated security transportation of inmates
  • Drug interdiction and weapons removal efforts
  • Advanced screening for contraband items

High security prisons and detention centers have even greater expenses for guards, weapons, perimeter barriers, surveillance, and design features. While essential for safety, these security measures certainly contribute to the high costs of prisons compared to other government institutions.

Prison Costs Vary Widely Between States

While the total costs of prisons in the US are extremely high, there is significant variation between states based on demographics, sentencing laws, security levels, wages, and healthcare options. Among the states, average annual prison costs per inmate range from a low of around $14,000 to over $60,000 per prisoner.

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States with highest average annual costs per inmate include:

  • New York – $69,355
  • California – $64,642
  • Connecticut – $60,220
  • Massachusetts – $58,970
  • Alaska – $58,622

States with lowest average annual costs per inmate include:

  • Alabama – $14,780
  • Indiana – $16,813
  • Kentucky – $16,823
  • Louisiana – $16,947
  • Arizona – $17,352

The design and operation of new prisons can also dramatically impact costs, with ultra-high security facilities costing over $100,000 per inmate annually in some states. Overall, states with high union staff wages, expensive medical care, and large segregated units tend to pay the most per prisoner. Those able to keep labor, healthcare, and security costs down have lower per capita expenditures.

Prison Cost Breakdown for a Model State Facility

To illustrate the typical costs of running a mid-sized state prison facility, here is a breakdown of the annual operating budget:

Personnel – $20 million

  • 300 Correctional officers – $18 million
  • 60 Supervisory and support staff – $2 million

Healthcare – $5 million

  • Doctors, nurses, medications – $4 million
  • Hospital visits – $1 million

Food Service – $2 million

  • Food costs – $1.5 million
  • Staffing – $500,000

Utilities – $1 million

  • Electricity, water, sewage, heating/cooling

Maintenance – $500,000

  • Upkeep, repairs

Supplies – $250,000

  • Clothing, linens, toiletries

Other – $750,000

  • Insurance, technology costs

Total Annual Operating Costs – $30 million

With a model inmate population of 1,000 prisoners, this leads to an average annual cost of $30,000 per inmate at this hypothetical facility. Prisons with lower security levels could potentially run for $5,000-10,000 less per inmate. Maximum security prisons often cost $5,000-15,000 more per inmate compared to this model.

Strategies for Reducing Prison Costs

With tight state budgets, prison administrators constantly seek ways to control and reduce incarceration costs. Some key strategies include:

  • Reduce staffing ratios – Lowering the number of officers per inmate saves significantly on salary costs. However, this also impacts safety and rehabilitation efforts.
  • Control healthcare costs – Coordinating care through an accountable provider, using telemedicine, and better procurement practices help lower inmate healthcare costs.
  • Renegotiate vendor contracts – Competitively bidding food, medical, supply, and commissary contracts can reduction contract pricing.
  • Reduce utility usage – Installing LED lighting, new HVAC systems, and low-flow plumbing can significantly lower prison utility bills.
  • Sentencing reforms – Reducing incarceration rates for non-violent offenders through policy changes cuts total population and costs.
  • Increase vocational training – Successful re-entry and rehabilitation programs lower repeat incarceration and the long-term societal costs of criminality.

While politically difficult, keeping inmates out of prison through mental health and drug diversion programs also significantly reduces corrections spending. With 2.3 million people behind bars, small reductions in prison populations can yield big cost savings.

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Table of Notable Criminals and Prison Sentences

Here is a table outlining details the convictions and sentences of several notable American criminals:

NameConvicted CrimesSentenceQuote on Conviction
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud150 years in prison“I am responsible for a great deal of suffering and pain. I understand that. I live in a tormented state now knowing of all the pain and suffering that I have created.”
Ted Kaczynski (Unabomber)Mail bombings killing 3, injuring 23Life in prison without parole“I don’t actually think that we should have a human society…It’s simply too disastrous.”
Whitey BulgerRacketeering, murder2 life sentences + 5 years“This is the most corrupt case I’ve ever seen…Cash is king here.”
Larry NassarCriminal sexual misconduct against 156 girls60 years in prison“There are no words to describe the depth and breadth of how sorry I am.”
El Chapo GuzmanDrug trafficking, murder conspiracyLife in prison + 30 yearsNo public statement made following conviction
Drew PetersonMurder of third wife38 years in prison“I did not kill Kathleen… I told the truth then, and I am telling the truth now.”

This table provides details on the crimes, sentences, and reactions for several of the most notorious American criminals serving lengthy prison terms. Their statements provide a glimpse into how convicted felons view their cases, accept responsibility, and wrestle with years or life behind bars.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Costs

How much does it cost to build a new maximum security prison?

Building a new maximum security prison facility can cost between $250-500 million depending on size, location, and amenities provided. Complex security infrastructure, housing units, and healthcare facilities drive up construction costs significantly.

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

Private prisons often claim they can reduce average costs by between 5-15% compared to government facilities. However, research shows cost savings are minimal and offset by reductions in security staffing and inmate programs.

What are ways to reduce healthcare costs for inmates?

Strategies like preventative care, on-site clinics, telemedicine, electronic records, prescription adherence, and Medicaid enrollment help control inmate healthcare costs over time. A coordinated system improves care and health while lowering expenses.

How much do inmate rehabilitation and training programs cost prisons?

Vocational, addiction treatment, high school equivalence, and social skills programs cost between $1,500-$5,000 per inmate annually. While not cheap, they significantly reduce recidivism rates and long-term societal costs.

Why do some states pay so much more to house inmates than others?

Higher costs in some states relate to smaller facilities, older infrastructure, higher staff wages, stronger unions, pension obligations, stricter access to care requirements, and larger segregated populations requiring more security.


The cost of maintaining prisons and incarcerating over 2 million Americans is astronomically high, exceeding $80 billion annually and averaging over $31,000 per inmate. Personnel costs make up the bulk of spending, followed by healthcare, food, utilities, supplies, and security needs.

While expenses are vast, strategies like lowering staff ratios, controlling healthcare, reducing utility usage, and sentencing reforms can help lower prison costs. But with an aging prison infrastructure and policies driving high incarceration rates, expect costs to remain extremely high unless major reforms are enacted. Going forward, policymakers must weigh the impacts of proposed justice reforms on both societal safety and budgets.

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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