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How Much Does The Average Prisoner Cost Per Day?

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 and local jails across the country. This massive inmate population comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the aggregate cost of prisons and jails in the US was $182 billion in FY2017. But how much does it cost to incarcerate one prisoner? Let’s examine the average cost per inmate and what’s driving these expensive bills.

Average Cost Per Inmate

Most states estimate the average cost per inmate is $30,000 to $60,000 per year. However, costs vary widely by state due to differences in wages, healthcare, services and programming provided, prison construction, and inmate population demographics.

Here is a breakdown of the average annual cost per state prisoner:

  • Housing, food, medical care: $21,006
  • Infrastructure amortization: $6,781
  • Staff salaries: $15,948
  • Inmate programs and services: $2,370

Average annual cost per inmate: $46,105

To put this in perspective, the average annual tuition and fees at a public 4-year college was $9,970 for in-state students in 2021-22. The amount spent to incarcerate one inmate would pay for college tuition for 4-5 students.

State prisons held over 1.2 million prisoners at year end 2020. That equates to over $55 billion per year spent nationally to house state inmates.

Federal Prison Costs

The cost per federal inmate is even higher than state prisons. In FY2020, the average cost to house an inmate in federal prison was $78,661 per year. With nearly 156,000 federal inmates, the total BOP budget was $7.8 billion in FY2020. This equates to over $12 million per day spent on federal incarceration.

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Jail Costs

While imprisoned for shorter durations than prisons, jails come at a steep price as well. The average daily cost per local inmate was $85 per day in FY2015 according to the Vera Institute. With a nationwide average daily jail population of 740,700 in 2018, the overall daily cost for local jails exceeded $63 million per day.

Factors Driving High Costs

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

Staffing

Staff salaries make up the biggest chunk of spending in corrections facilities. Prisons and jails must maintain minimum staffing levels around the clock for security, healthcare, food service, programming, and administration. With strong union contracts, overtime pay, and comprehensive benefits packages, personnel costs quickly add up. For example, in California, staffing accounted for 71% of the corrections budget in 2020-21.

Healthcare

From routine checkups to dialysis, comprehensive medical care for aging and chronically ill inmates is constitutionally mandated in prisons and jails. Nearly 40% of state prisoners reported a chronic condition in 2004. The nationwide prison healthcare budget surpassed $8.1 billion in 2014. Inmates over 55 years old cost an average of 2-3 times more than younger inmates.

Medications

With many inmates suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders, medications are widely prescribed in correctional facilities. In 2014, states spent over $2 billion just on Hepatitis C drugs for inmates. As prescription drug costs continue to climb, so will inmate medication expenditures.

Security Technology

Improving perimeter security and surveillance capabilities is a rising expense. Advanced features like body scanners, cell phone interception systems, body cameras, and analytics software require major investment and ongoing costs. For example, phone call monitoring systems cost over $30 million annually for a state corrections department.

Prison Construction

Despite declining crime rates, many states are expanding capacity with new facilities to address overcrowding. The nationwide state and federal prison population increased 34% from 2000 to 2019. The average cost to build a new high-security prison is nearly $400 million nationwide. Annual bond payments drive up per inmate costs.

Special Housing

Solitary confinement and other forms of isolated housing for disciplinary infractions, known gang members, protection cases, and death row inmates require dedicated staff and facilities. Supermax prison cells cost over 3 times more than general population cells. Mental health treatment for inmates too unstable for general population also runs higher.

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Rehabilitation Services

Treatment, counseling, education, and skills programs aim to reduce recidivism rates through rehabilitation. But comprehensive programming requires specialized staff, facilities, materials, and administration to be effective. According to the Department of Justice, every dollar spent on prison education programs reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5.

State Differences in Prison Costs

Prison costs vary widely between states based on demographics, staffing levels, infrastructure, programming, privatization, and other factors.

Highest average cost per inmate in 2020:

  • New York – $106,493
  • California – $84,848
  • Connecticut – $69,355

Lowest average cost per inmate in 2020:

  • Louisiana – $19,185
  • Alabama – $20,053
  • Indiana – $20,944

Let’s examine the factors behind the costs in two sample states:

New York

With powerful unions and high wages, New YorkCorrectional Officers make over $137,000 after overtime. This drives up per inmate costs. Aging facilities require maintenance and upgrades. And a comprehensive medical system cares for an older prison population with chronic health needs.

Louisiana

Louisiana keeps costs low through low staffing levels and limited programming. The state has focused more on probation, parole, and diversion programs to reduce incarceration. But inadequate medical care, high inmate mortality rates, and crumbling facilities have led to lawsuits over conditions.

Review of Significant Criminal Cases and Costs

Below is a table summarizing notable cases of financial crimes or violations and their costs to society:

DefendantDescription of CrimesEstimated CostsConviction and Sentence
Bernard MadoffOperated largest Ponzi scheme in history, defrauding thousands of investors$65 billion lost by investors150 year prison sentence
Allen StanfordRan massive Ponzi scheme marketing fake certificates of deposit$7 billion lost by investors110 year prison sentence
Jeffrey SkillingFormer Enron CEO involved in accounting fraud and corruption$74 billion lost by shareholders14 year prison sentence
Raj RajaratnamFormer hedge fund manager convicted of multiple insider trading conspiracies$64 million in illicit profits11 year prison sentence
Jordan Belfort“Wolf of Wall Street” stock broker who defrauded investors of over $200 million$200 million stolen from stock investors22 months in federal prison

These major white collar crimes resulted in staggering losses to investors, companies, and the economy as a whole. Though the defendants were given lengthy sentences, the costs to society extend far beyond the years behind bars. Lives and livelihoods destroyed, loss of investor confidence, and weakened financial institutions all have ripple effects for years to come. As Jordan Belfort infamously stated in an interview from federal prison: “My incarceration is just a temporary relocation from one prison to another. The real prison is greed, distorted values, and ignorance.”

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to keep inmates in prison per day?

Based on average nationwide data, it costs approximately $100-150 per day to incarcerate one inmate in prison. This factors in operational expenses like food, housing, staffing, medical care, utilities, and programming amortized across 365 days a year.

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Do prisons really need to spend so much on inmate healthcare?

With an aging prison population and long mandatory sentences, prisons are filled with inmates suffering from chronic and serious medical conditions that are very costly to treat. Terminally ill inmates still have a constitutional right to healthcare. Preventing contagious disease outbreaks also requires robust care.

Aren’t private prisons supposed to cost less than state prisons?

Private prisons may cost 15-20% less on average than public facilities. However, the savings often come from lower staffing levels, salaries, training, programming, and healthcare – which generate lawsuits over poor conditions. Some studies show they have no long-term economic advantage.

Couldn’t we save money by releasing low-level drug offenders?

Releasing non-violent drug offenders who pose little public safety risk could potentially reduce prison populations and costs. However, political hurdles often prevent such reforms. Further study is needed on impacts to recidivism and societal costs of addiction, property crime, and healthcare.

Why not replace jail and prison sentences with community supervision like probation?

Community supervision through probation and parole is significantly cheaper than incarceration, by over 90% in some states. However, not every offender is suitable for community release. Further study of effective probation programs tailored to criminogenic risks and needs would help identify situations for possible diversion from incarceration.

Conclusion

With an average nationwide cost exceeding $46,000 annually per prisoner, the incarceration bill for federal, state, and local correctional facilities now exceeds $182 billion per year. Staffing represents the biggest cost driver, followed by inmate healthcare, medications, infrastructure, and programming. State costs vary widely based on demographics, union strength, facility conditions, and services provided.

But high costs don’t necessarily translate into improved public safety. Nearly 77% of released prisoners are rearrested within 5 years, showing that rehabilitation efforts are often ineffective. Ultimately, policymakers striving to reduce recidivism rates and prison spending must take a multifaceted approach through diversion programs, boosting educational opportunities, right-sizing sentences, and expanding alternatives to incarceration. With smarter justice reforms, tremendous funds could be shifted to strengthening vulnerable communities and preventing crimes before they occur.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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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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