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How Much Does The Federal Government Spend On Prisons?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars in state and federal prisons as of 2021. This high incarceration rate comes at a major cost to taxpayers, as prisons are expensive to operate and maintain.

In this article, we will analyze federal prison spending and costs in detail, looking at the overall budget, cost per inmate, and how spending has changed over time. We will also highlight key statistics, provide examples of major federal prison costs, and answer frequently asked questions about the economics of the US prison system.

Federal Prison System Overview

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsible for managing and regulating all federal correctional institutions in the US. As of 2021, the BOP oversees 122 facilities, 6 of which are maximum security penitentiaries. Other prison types include medium and low security facilities, administrative facilities, prison camps, detention centers, and medical referral centers. In total, around 156,000 inmates are housed in BOP facilities. The BOP budget is contained within the broader US Department of Justice (DOJ) budget.

Key responsibilities of the BOP include:

  • Housing federal inmates and providing for their care and safety
  • Delivering programming and education to inmates to reduce recidivism
  • Overseeing prison staff and operations
  • Providing specialized services like healthcare and psychological treatment
  • Transporting inmates between facilities

The director of the BOP reports directly to the Attorney General. The BOP underwent major restructuring in the 1920s and 1930s as the modern federal prison system developed. Maximum security penitentiaries like Alcatraz and Leavenworth were built during this era. The federal inmate population has exploded since the 1980s due to stiffer sentencing laws and the War on Drugs.

Total Federal Prison Expenditures

According to the FY 2022 budget request from the DOJ, the total amount requested for federal prison spending in 2022 was $8.45 billion. This covers all BOP expenses related to inmate care, facility operations and maintenance, inmate health services, staff salaries and benefits, and more.

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To put this huge number in perspective, the BOP budget consumes about 1/4 of the entire DOJ discretionary budget. It also equals about 25% of the budget for all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. The BOP budget is by far the largest component within the DOJ budget.

Over the last 20 years, federal prison spending has more than doubled in real dollar terms. The total budget has grown from around $4 billion in FY 2000 to over $8 billion today. This rapid growth has been driven by the surging federal inmate population.

Cost Per Federal Inmate

With a total prison population of around 156,000, the average cost per federal inmate is around $54,000 per year in FY 2022. This is based on the total $8.45 billion BOP budget divided across inmates.

Cost per inmate has risen substantially from around $21,000 in FY 2000, again driven by the growing inmate population and rising healthcare expenses.

To break down the cost per inmate further:

  • Facilities and maintenance accounts for $33,000 per inmate
  • Inmate health services add $10,500 per inmate
  • The remainder covers personnel, training, IT, policy monitoring, and more

In comparison, the average cost per inmate at state prisons is around $35,000 per year. However, states have a mix of maximum and medium security prisons, while the federal system focuses on high security facilities that require more spending for control and safety.

Examples of Major Federal Prison Costs

To understand what is driving the huge federal prison budget, here are some examples of major line items:

  • Staff salaries and benefits – At $4.4 billion, this accounts for over half the entire BOP budget. Guard salaries account for around $1.5 billion.
  • Inmate health services – This includes medical, dental, and mental healthcare for inmates, totaling $1.6 billion.
  • Food and nutrition – Feeding 156,000 inmates three meals per day costs over $600 million per year.
  • Facility operations and maintenance – Keeping aging prisons running safely takes major maintenance and repairs, at a cost of $900 million.
  • Utilities – Heating, cooling, and powering federal prisons requires over $400 million in utility expenses.
  • Education and training – The BOP spends $300 million on education, vocational training, and skills building to reduce recidivism.
  • Inmate programs – Psychology, counseling, fitness, and other inmate programs cost $267 million.
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As these examples demonstrate, safety, security, healthcare, food service, and facilities carry major costs in the federal prison system. Personnel costs are by far the largest component.

Federal Prison Spending Over Time

Federal prison expenditures have risen substantially over the past 40 years:

  • In 1980, the total BOP budget was $330 million, supporting 24,000 federal inmates.
  • By 1990, spending had grown to $2.2 billion with a population of 58,000 inmates.
  • In 2000, the budget reached $4 billion with around 145,000 inmates.
  • Today the budget is over $8 billion with around 156,000 total inmates.

Adjusting for inflation, federal prison spending has risen by over 600% since 1980. The federal inmate population has ballooned by over 500% during the same time period.

This growth has been driven by:

  • Harsher federal sentencing laws, especially for drug crimes
  • Higher healthcare and personnel costs
  • An aging prison infrastructure requiring maintenance
  • Expensive high-security facilities

Federal spending on prisons continues to take up a larger share of the overall DOJ budget year after year.

Key Statistics on Federal Incarceration

  • Over 55% of federal inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses
  • Federal prisons are operating at 14% above rated capacity
  • The US houses 25% of the world’s prisoners but only has 4% of the population
  • Around 10,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement in federal prisons
  • Federal prisons employ over 36,000 staff
  • About 184,000 inmates exit federal prisons each year

These statistics help capture the massive scale of federal incarceration in the US and the resources required to maintain this system. Reducing the prison population would likely reduce costs.

Table of Major Federal Crimes and Sentences

CrimeDescriptionExample ConvictionsSentence
Drug traffickingImporting or selling illegal drugsEl Chapo Guzman, drug kingpinLife in prison
Financial fraudMajor financial scams and embezzlementBernie Madoff, Ponzi scheme fraud150 years
Corporate fraudCheating investors as a corporate executiveJeff Skilling, Enron executive24 years
Organized crimeMob-related racketeering and murderJohn Gotti, NYC mob bossLife in prison
Child exploitationDistributing or creating child pornographyJared Fogle, ex-Subway spokesman15 years
BriberyBribing federal officials or politiciansRod Blagojevich, Illinois governor14 years
Money launderingDisguising illegally obtained moneyHSBC bank$1.9 billion fine
CybercrimeMajor hacking, identity theft, computer fraudAlbert Gonzalez, hacker20 years
Tax fraudMajor tax evasion schemesWesley Snipes, actor3 years

Sample Conviction Quotes

“I’m stunned, horrified, outraged, angry, chagrined, sad.” – Bernie Madoff, convicted of $60 billion Ponzi scheme fraud, sentenced to 150 years.

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“My incarceration is for the rest of my life, and that’s what I deserve.” – Dennis Kozlowski, former Tyco CEO, sentenced to 8 to 25 years for corporate theft.

“I see the system for what it really is and I see the abuse of power.” – Joe Exotic, sentenced to 22 years in prison for murder-for-hire plot.

“I have no excuses. I broke the law.” – Martha Stewart, convicted of insider trading, sentenced to 5 months.

“I will work every single day to redeem people’s faith in me.” – Rod Blagojevich, Illinois governor convicted of corruption, sentenced to 14 years.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does it cost so much to house federal inmates?

It costs over $54,000 per year on average to house a federal inmate. This high cost is driven by expenses like guard salaries, healthcare, facilities, food service, training programs, and utilities. High security federal prisons that house violent offenders require strong perimeter security and control.

How much do federal prison guards make?

The average salary for a federal corrections officer is around $55,000 per year. With benefits, this rises to over $70,000 per year. Guard salaries account for around $1.5 billion of the BOP budget.

Are federal inmates provided healthcare?

Yes, the BOP is constitutionally required to provide medical, dental, and mental healthcare to all federal inmates. This care costs over $1.6 billion annually. All prisons have clinics, doctors, nurses, and access to offsite hospitals.

What is the most expensive federal prison to operate?

The most expensive federal prison is the Administrative Maximum (ADX) Florence penitentiary in Colorado. This ultra high security prison houses the most dangerous inmates and costs over $78,000 per inmate annually.

How could costs be reduced in federal prisons?

Experts recommend approaches like reducing harsh mandatory minimum sentences to lower inmate populations, allowing non-violent offenders alternative sanctions, investing more in rehabilitation over detention, and reforming bail practices to reduce pretrial detentions. Cutting costs while maintaining security is challenging.


The cost of running federal prisons has ballooned over the past 40 years to its current level of over $8 billion annually. On average, federal taxpayers now pay around $54,000 per year to house each federal inmate.

While federal prisons are costly, most experts agree that judicious use of alternative sanctions along with moderate sentencing reforms could potentially lower incarceration rates and reduce long-term costs without compromising public safety. However, political Will and public sentiment would need to shift to enable major changes. Until then, it appears likely that federal prison costs will continue to rise.

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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