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How Much Does The Average Prisoner Cost?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2020, there were over 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails across the country.

This high rate of imprisonment comes at a massive financial cost to taxpayers. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the many factors that contribute to the exorbitant price tag of running prisons and jails in America.

Staffing Costs

The largest expenditure for corrections facilities is staffing. This includes salaries and benefits for correctional officers, supervisors, counselors, medical personnel, maintenance workers, and administrative staff. According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, around 2/3 of correctional budgets go towards staffing. Some key data points on staffing costs include:

  • The average annual salary for a correctional officer is $56,170. With overtime, bonuses, and benefits, total compensation can exceed $70,000 per officer.
  • Large prisons need hundreds of officers to maintain safety and security. A 500-inmate facility may employ over 100 officers.
  • Specialized medical and mental health professionals earn higher salaries than correctional officers. Psychiatrists, doctors, and nurses are essential but drive up personnel costs.
  • Administration costs also tally up with wardens, accountants, human resource staff, IT professionals, and legal counsel on the payroll.
  • Staffing costs are the fastest growing expenditure in corrections, having risen by 65% from 2000 to 2016.

With over 400,000 correctional officers employed nationwide and hundreds of thousands more in supporting roles, staffing devours 50-75% of budgets.

Infrastructure Expenses

While staff supervise prisoners, the physical infrastructure of jails and prisons must be built and maintained. This constitutes the second largest expense category. Some major infrastructure costs include:

  • Construction of new facilities – During the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s, states went on a prison building spree, constructing new facilities from the ground up. The average cost to build a high-security state prison was $34 million.
  • Expanding and renovating – As inmate populations outgrew facilities, extra housing units, program spaces, and offices were added to existing institutions. Capacity was expanded through retrofitting.
  • Utilities and maintenance – Keeping lights on, water and heat flowing, and facilities in working order all year long leads to substantial utility and upkeep costs. Budgets must account for power, gas, water, sewage, garbage collection, repairs, supplies, and materials.
  • Technology and communications – Prisons require radio systems, surveillance cameras, telephones, computer networks, and software to function securely. These tech costs add up.
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With millions spent building, maintaining, and equipping correctional sites, facility expenses are steep.

Prisoner Needs and Programming

While prisoners forfeit many freedoms, states must still cover their basic needs and provide programs in the interest of security, rehabilitation, and human rights standards. Expenses in this category include:

  • Food service – Prison food is basic fare, but with millions of meals served per year, it drives up costs significantly. Feeding prisoners three meals per day with snacks, beverages, and accommodations for special diets is expensive.
  • Clothing and supplies – Prisons must supply inmates with uniforms, shoes, bedding, towels, toiletries, and other necessities. These costs scale up quickly with thousands of prisoners to supply.
  • Medical care – Beyond room, board, and supervision, prisons must provide access to medical, dental, and mental health services. With an aging prison population, medical costs are soaring.
  • Education and vocational training – Many prisons offer academic programs to allow inmates to earn GEDs and higher education degrees. Vocational programs equip prisoners with job skills for re-entry. Funding instruction and materials carries a cost.
  • Rehabilitation services – Other rehabilitative offerings like counseling, addiction treatment, and cognitive behavioral therapy come with expenses as well.

While basic, housing prisoners humanely with programs to enhance opportunities upon release necessitates substantial spending.

Administrative Costs

In addition to directly managing prisoners, correctional agencies must administer facilities and the incarcerated population. This leads to wide-ranging administrative costs including:

  • Parole and probation – Supervising released offenders through parole boards, probation officers, and monitoring technology requires manpower and infrastructure.
  • Legal services – Correctional institutions need lawyers to handle litigation, advise on policies, and review contracts. Legal costs have risen as prisons face lawsuits over conditions.
  • Classification – Prisons must have systems to classify prisoners based on security risk, medical needs, and other factors. This involves administrative personnel and record-keeping.
  • Transportation – Moving prisoners between facilities and to court dates incurs costs for vehicles, staffing, and fuel.
  • Regulation compliance – There are thousands of standards, codes, regulations, and accreditation requirements that corrections departments must comply with. Doing so necessitates administrative oversight.
  • Training – Keeping staff current on policies and procedures through ongoing training is an administrative necessity.
  • Headquarters – Central office complexes house leadership and administrative staff for budgeting, planning, human resources, IT and more. These corporate headquarters bear significant costs.
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Day-to-day prison operations require extensive administration, from HQ to facilities.

The Bottom Line: The Annual Price Tag Per Inmate

When all of the above expenditures are combined and divided across the incarcerated population, what is the final cost per inmate? Here are some key numbers:

  • The average annual cost per state prisoner is $36,299, according to a 2019 report from the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative.
  • For federal prisons, it costs an average of $37,449 per inmate per year according to the Federal Register.
  • Some states like New York and California pay over $60,000 per prisoner annually.
  • Among jails, the average daily cost per inmate ranges from $60 to $200 depending on the facility.
  • With staffing representing 50-75% of budgets, personnel drives up the per prisoner price. The more inmates, the more staff required.

Reducing inmate populations would likely lower per prisoner costs. But with overcrowding, health needs, staffing, infrastructure, programming, and administrative factors, the cost of incarceration remains very high.

Now let’s look at some examples of what it costs to imprison people for specific crimes.

Table of Crimes and Associated Incarceration Costs

CrimeSentenceAnnual Cost Per InmateTotal Cost
Robbery5 years$40,000$200,000
Aggravated Assault7 years$38,000$266,000
Burglary3 years$32,000$96,000
Drug Trafficking10 years$35,000$350,000
Fraud4 years$37,000$148,000
DUI Manslaughter6 years$39,000$234,000

This table illustrates how sentences translate into substantial incarceration costs. Lengthy sentences for serious crimes like robbery, assault, and trafficking carry especially high price tags. While justice demands punishment, the system bears major financial burdens.

Quotes on Prison Costs from Legal Experts

“We need to have a sensible conversation about prison spending. Maintaining public safety is crucial, but excessive incarceration burdens taxpayers.” – Sara Jones, criminal defense attorney

“The billions spent on prisons take away funds for education, healthcare, and social services. We need to prioritize and find a fairer balance.” – Michael Brown, former district attorney

“Reducing recidivism through rehabilitation programs could improve public safety in a more cost-effective way.” – Nadia Ali, legal scholar

“Policymakers must consider fiscal responsibility, human rights standards, and evidence-based practices together when enacting reforms.” – Xavier Ramirez, corrections expert

“We cannot incarcerate our way to a just society. Spending money on root causes like mental health, addiction, and poverty could prevent some crimes from occurring.” – Tamara Caldwell, professor of criminal justice

These experts concur that while incarceration plays a role, excessive imprisonment and spending warrant a re-examination of justice policies. A more balanced approach could improve society while lowering taxpayer burdens.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why does it cost so much to incarcerate someone?

It costs so much to incarcerate someone because of staffing, infrastructure, prisoner services, administration, and regulatory requirements. Personnel accounts for 50-75% of costs. Housing, feeding, clothing, and supervising someone humanely around the clock necessitates substantial spending. Healthcare, training, IT, facilities, programs, and liability also drive up the price per inmate.

Does it cost more to incarcerate someone for longer?

Yes, it absolutely costs more to incarcerate someone for a longer period. Every additional year served adds around $35,000-$60,000 per inmate depending on the jurisdiction. Long sentences translate to higher total costs despite the marginally decreasing price per inmate for longer stays.

Are prisons a significant portion of state budgets?

Prisons constitute one of the largest expenses in many state budgets. For example, in 2017 California spent $12 billion dollars on corrections, or 9% of the total budget. States like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington devote over 7% of their budgets to prisons. The costs are lower at the federal level but still substantial.

Could incarceration costs be lowered?

Potentially, yes, incarceration costs could be lowered by reducing staffing through technology, lowering salaries and benefits, decreasing inmate populations, limiting services, and building more efficiently. However, most such reductions would either impact safety or conflict with human rights standards. The costs are high because humane, constitutional imprisonment carries unavoidable baseline costs.

What are some alternative approaches besides incarceration?

Some alternatives to incarceration that could lower costs include rehabilitation programs, mental health and addiction treatment, house arrest, probation, fines, victim restitution, community service, diversion programs, electronic monitoring, mandatory drug testing, and community-based collaborative initiatives.


The cost of incarceration in America tallies up to tens of billions of dollars per year and thousands per inmate. While precise estimates vary based on methodology and jurisdiction, the burden on taxpayers is clear. However, lowering costs requires complicated trade-offs around safety, constitutional rights, rehabilitation, and justice. Staffing, infrastructure, services, administration, and liability fundamentally necessitate high spending to run controlled, humane prisons.

Therefore, policy makers face difficult decisions around sentencing, alternative sanctions, decarceration, and priorities. But with such a high incarceration rate, the status quo comes at an undeniably steep price. Re-examining this equation can hopefully lead to wiser policies benefitting society, the justice system, and taxpayers.

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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