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How Much Does It Cost To Support a Prisoner?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2 million people are currently behind bars in America’s prisons and jails. This mass incarceration comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers. Experts estimate that the average cost to incarcerate one inmate ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 per year.

With overcrowded prisons and jails operating over capacity, the financial burden on states and local governments is unsustainable. This article examines the key factors driving up the costs of incarceration and the economic impact on American taxpayers.

Average Annual Cost to House an Inmate

The cost to house an inmate can vary widely by state and facility security levels. High security prisons that house violent and dangerous offenders carry the highest per inmate costs. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average annual cost per inmate was:

  • $31,977 in states prison facilities
  • $60,000 in high security federal prisons
  • $50,562 per youth in juvenile detention facilities

These figures represent the operating costs to staff, feed, clothe, provide healthcare, and secure each inmate annually. Capital costs to build and maintain prison facilities are excluded.

Key Factors Driving High Incarceration Costs

Several key factors contribute to the high costs of running prisons in America:


Staff salaries, wages, benefits, pension contributions and overtime pay make up the largest portion of a facility’s operating budget. Maintaining security requires intensive staffing around the clock. The average ratio is one corrections officer for every five inmates. With overcrowded prisons, excessive overtime is common.


Incarcerated populations have higher rates of chronic and infectious diseases, mental illness and substance abuse. Providing medical, dental and mental healthcare for inmates is constitutionally mandated and costly. Approximately 20% of prison budgets go towards inmate healthcare.

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Aging Prison Populations

Longer sentencing guidelines have increased the elderly inmate population. Aging inmates cost twice as much for healthcare and accommodations. Adaptations like wheelchair ramps and assisted living must be made.

Prisoner Services and Programming

To reduce recidivism rates, facilities offer various services like education and vocational training, counseling, recreation and supervision of family visits. Funding these rehabilitative programs adds to a facility’s costs.

Infrastructure Expenses

Updating and maintaining aging prison facilities built decades ago carries enormous capital costs. Essential upgrades to utilities, communication systems and technology infrastructure are expensive. Newer eco-friendly prisons also cost 20% more upfront.

The Impact on State and Local Budgets

With over 90% of prisoners held in state facilities, the burden of paying for incarceration falls heavily on states and local municipalities. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers:

  • In 2017, states spent $44 billion on corrections, accounting for 7% of total general fund expenditures.
  • Between 1986-2013, state corrections expenditures increased by 324%, making it one of the fastest growing budget items second only to Medicaid.
  • One in every 15 state general fund dollars now goes to corrections. Local governments contribute $11 billion more annually to jail inmates.

This means less money can be allocated to other vital areas like education, healthcare, transportation and social services. The Prison Policy Initiative found that in 2017, state spending on incarceration outpaced spending on higher education in 28 states. With exorbitant costs and overstretched budgets, reevaluating mass incarceration and exploring reforms has become a fiscal necessity for states.

Evaluating the Costs and Benefits of Reduced Incarceration

With prisons representing a major expenditure, both states and the federal government are reassessing the costs and benefits of current incarceration rates compared to alternatives like probation, diversion programs or earlier release.

The National Conference of State Legislatures highlights some key considerations and tradeoffs of reducing incarceration rates:

  • Budget savings from prison closures and population reduction must be weighed against the administrative costs of transitioning individuals into other programs or early release. Closing facilities can also impact surrounding communities who relied on prisons for jobs.
  • Downsizing prisons may produce significant recurring savings from lower operational costs and inmate overhead. But the upfront costs of building alternative facilities like residential reentry centers must be accounted for.
  • Lower incarceration rates aim to reduce future recidivism and the societal costs of repeat offenders. But comfortable facilities for rehabilitation and job training require greater upfront spending.
  • Removing low risk offenders can reduce unnecessary incarceration. But focus must still remain on incarcerating dangerous and violent prisoners to maintain public safety.

Proper analysis requires accurately projecting costs based on proposed policies over short and long terms. Trading incarceration expenses for increased investment in probation, parole and community-based alternatives can yield net savings down the line. But the transition does not always produce immediate budget relief.

Case Study: Reducing Recidivism in Texas Closed Prisons While Saving Money

Texas provides an example of how reduced incarceration paired with reentry programs can improve budget efficiency:

  • Faced with a rapidly growing prison population in 2005, Texas shifted to enhancing community supervision and correctional alternatives to slow inmate growth.
  • Texas closed three prisons between 2011-2012 and reduced incarceration rates without negatively impacting public safety.
  • The state saved $2 billion by avoiding the costs to operate new prisons. Savings were redirected to probation and parole reforms.
  • The reforms led to a 20% decrease in the re-incarceration rate for parolees and 9% reduction for probationers from 2005 to 2017.
  • The crime rate in Texas declined by 30% during the same period.
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Texas demonstrates that right-sizing incarceration while still ensuring public safety can yield significant savings to reinvest in strategic reforms. The state achieved nearly 20% average savings with reduced incarceration and recidivism.

Key Figures on Incarceration Costs in America

Here is a summary of some key national statistics on prison populations and costs:

Prison Population2.1 million incarcerated in 1,800 state and federal prisons and 3,000 local jails
Annual Prisoner Intake600,000 new prisoners yearly
Corrections Budgets$80 billion spent on corrections annually nationwide
Average Annual Cost per Inmate$30,000 to $60,000 varying by facility
Average Cost per Inmate 55+ Years Old$68,000 due to healthcare needs
States’ Corrections Budget$46 billion or 7% of total state general fund spending
States’ Higher Ed Spending$10 billion less than corrections spending in 28 states
Local Governments’ Jail Costs$31.5 billion annually
Federal Prison Budget$7.5 billion FY 2019 at $36,299 per inmate
Recidivism Rate44% of released inmates rearrested within 1 year
Youth Confinement Cost$50,000 to $60,000 per youth per year

Impact of Long Sentences on Taxpayers

One significant factor driving up incarceration costs are lengthy mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes” laws adopted since the 1980s War on Drugs. Harsher sentencing guidelines have led to a surge of inmates serving extreme 20 to 30 year sentences. Some examples:

Case Study 1: Jail Costs for Nonviolent Drug Offender

  • Edward Douglas served a 25 year sentence from age 27 to 52 for selling 140 grams of crack cocaine. The average cost to taxpayers was $625,000 assuming $25,000 per year to incarcerate.
  • Had he served 5 years at $125,000, taxpayers would have saved $500,000.

Case Study 2: Serving Over 10 Years for Drug Felonies

  • Ramona Brant served 21 years in federal prison since 1995 for minor participation in a cocaine distribution conspiracy.
  • Assuming an average annual cost of $30,000, her incarceration burdened taxpayers over $630,000.
  • She was granted early compassionate release in 2016 after an amendment to sentencing laws. But only after costing the system dearly.

These examples demonstrate how extremely long sentences for nonviolent offenders create crushing costs. Rethinking sentencing guidelines could reduce taxpayers’ burden while still providing justice and public safety.

Conviction & Sentencing Details for Infamous Long-Term Inmates

Here are the conviction details and quotes on sentencing for some high profile inmates who received decades-long prison terms, costing taxpayers millions:

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Bernie Madoff – Ponzi Scheme Mastermind

  • Convicted of: Securities fraud, investment advisor fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering
  • Sentence: 150 years in prison
  • Quote on Sentencing: “I live in a tormented state knowing the pain and suffering I have created. I have left a legacy of shame. It is something I will live with for the rest of my life.”

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – Mexican Cartel Leader

  • Convicted of: Engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, money laundering
  • Sentence: Life plus 30 years in prison
  • Quote on Sentencing: “There was no justice here.”

Larry Nassar – USA Gymnastics Doctor

  • Convicted of: Three counts of criminal sexual conduct
  • Sentence: Up to 175 years in prison
  • Quote on Sentencing: “I’ve just signed your death warrant.” – Judge Rosemarie Aquilina

Bill Cosby – Comedian

  • Convicted of: Three counts of aggravated indecent assault
  • Sentence: 3 to 10 years in prison
  • Quote on Sentencing: “No one is above the law. And no one should be treated differently.” – Judge Steven O’Neill

Lengthy incarceration of elderly inmates will continue to strain state and federal prison budgets for decades absent reforms. Taxpayers are footing the bill for lifetimes behind bars.

Frequently Asked Questions on Cost of Incarceration

How much does it cost to support a prisoner each year?

The average cost to support one prisoner ranges from $30,000 to $60,000 per year depending on the security level of the facility. Maximum security prisons are the most expensive.

What is the total cost of mass incarceration per year?

Total spending on incarceration is approximately $80 billion nationwide. State prisons where most prisoners are held cost taxpayers $46 billion per year. The federal system adds $7.5 billion.

How do inmate healthcare costs impact budgets?

Inmate healthcare costs average around 20% of a facility’s budget. With aging and chronically ill inmate populations, medical costs are becoming unsustainable for many states’ budgets.

Is incarceration more expensive than college tuition?

In 28 states, more tax dollars now go to incarceration costs than higher education budgets. The average yearly cost of $30,000 to house an inmate exceeds average annual college tuition.

Could fewer prisoners reduce future crime and save money?

Yes, data shows that reducing incarceration while focusing resources on rehabilitation and vocational training can lower recidivism rates. This produces long-term savings and benefits for society.

Conclusion: Rethinking Sentencing and Reform

With prisons representing one of the fastest growing costs in government, both state and federal officials are reconsidering policies to curb prison populations. Harsh mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws helped swell inmate populations and costs since the 1980s. High recidivism rates show that incarceration alone is not working.

While incarceration remains necessary for violent offenders, rethinking sentencing for nonviolent drug and property crimes could slow unsustainable costs. Allowing judicial discretion, emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment, and strengthening community supervision are gaining support.

Texas provides a model for how reduced incarceration paired with reentry support can improve outcomes and produce savings. Their reforms represent a balanced approach that diminishes costs without compromising public safety. Going forward, policymakers must evaluate if sentencing laws and incarceration rates are aligned with their goals to protect citizens in the most budget efficient manner. With bloated prisons crippling budgets, reforms are imperative.

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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