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How Much Does The Government Spend On Prisons Each Year?

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. Housing inmates is expensive for taxpayers – the average cost to incarcerate one federal prisoner in Fiscal Year 2020 was $37,449 per year.

With state budgets stretched thin, many are questioning whether our current sentencing laws and high incarceration rates make fiscal sense. This article will examine the financial costs of prisons and jails, who pays for incarceration, and whether reforms could reduce spending while still keeping communities safe.

How Much Does the Government Spend on Prisons Each Year?

The federal, state and local governments together spend over $80 billion annually on corrections and incarceration. The United States spends far more on prisons than any other developed country. Here is a breakdown of incarceration costs:

Federal Prison Costs

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had a budget of $8.1 billion in FY 2022 to house and rehabilitate 185,000 federal inmates.
  • The average annual cost to house a federal prisoner was $37,449 in FY 2020.
  • The BOP budget equals around 10% of the total spent on corrections by all levels of government.

State Prison Costs

  • States spent over $50 billion on their prison systems in FY 2019.
  • The average cost per state prisoner nationally was $33,274 in FY 2015.
  • However, costs vary widely by state, from $15,000 per inmate in Alabama to over $60,000 in New York.

Local Jail Costs

  • Local jails held over 700,000 individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences in 2022.
  • Jail costs were approximately $25 billion in FY 2011-2012.
  • The average cost per inmate was $100 per day for large jails.

So at the federal, state and local levels combined, taxpayers spend over $80 billion on incarceration each year. Prison costs have quadrupled since 1980 as incarceration rates soared. Some states now spend more on prisons than on education.

Factors Driving High Incarceration Costs

Why does it cost so much to house inmates in the United States? A few key factors drive incarceration costs:

High Incarceration Rates

  • At 639 inmates per 100,000 residents, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate globally.
  • Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws from the 1980s contributed to longer prison terms and overcrowding.
  • Other countries like Canada (114 per 100k) and Germany (69 per 100k) that focus more on rehab have much lower rates.
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Staff Costs

  • Personnel costs make up around 80% of state prison budgets and 2/3 of the BOP budget. Guards, healthcare workers, administrators and support staff add up.
  • The average cost for a full-time correctional officer is over $60,000 a year in salary and benefits.

Healthcare Costs

  • Inmates have a constitutional right to healthcare. Many inmates have chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and hepatitis.
  • On average, states spend $8,670 per inmate on healthcare, which is often contracted to private companies.

Security Infrastructure

  • Modern prisons require layers of security including perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray machines, metal detectors and more.
  • Newer high-tech “supermax” prisons keep violent inmates in solitary confinement cells 23 hours a day.

Programs and Services

  • By law, prisoners must have access to programs like education classes, job training, libraries, religious services, counseling and sports.
  • prisons provide reentry services to inmates prior to release like job placement assistance and housing.

While all these services are critical, they drive up the costs to house each prisoner.

Prison Costs by State

Prison costs vary widely across the 50 states based on the size of the prison population, staff salaries, infrastructure and healthcare costs. Below are some examples of the annual costs per inmate in certain states:

StateCost Per Inmate
New York$69,000

California’s annual cost of $81,000 per prisoner is the highest in the country. High labor costs, generous employee pensions, expensive healthcare and aging infrastructure contribute to the price tag. Texas, on the other hand, keeps costs lower through stringent inmate eligibility requirements for health services and a large private prison system.

Should Prison Spending Be Cut?

With budgets tight, some politicians argue states should reduce prison spending by:

  • Closing costly older prisons
  • Increasing privatization and contracting services like healthcare
  • Reducing staff salaries and benefits
  • Cutting inmate programs and services

However, many experts warn against deep cuts, which could sacrifice safety, rehabilitation programs and oversight. Lower staff-to-inmate ratios are linked to higher violence rates. Dramatically reducing medical care could lead to lawsuits over civil rights violations. The most effective way to lower incarceration costs, they argue, is to enact “smarter” criminal justice policies that reduce overall prison populations such as:

  • Sentencing reform – Reduce harsh mandatory minimums and allow parole for more offenses. Give judges back flexibility.
  • Increase alternatives to prison – Expand drug courts and diversion programs to keep non-violent offenders out of jails.
  • Reduce recidivism – Focus on effective rehabilitation and reentry programs so released inmates don’t end up back behind bars.
  • Lower crime rates – Put more resources into crime prevention, education, mental health and substance abuse programs in communities.

With thoughtful reforms centered on rehabilitation over retribution, it may be possible to ease prison overcrowding and lower expenditures without sacrificing public safety.

Major Costs of Mass Incarceration

Beyond just the huge monetary costs, having such a large prison population exacts other tolls on society according to research:

Economic Costs

  • Reduces workforce participation and productivity
  • Hurts families’ financial stability when breadwinners are incarcerated
  • Decreases ex-offenders’ future earnings and job prospects

Social Costs

  • Weakens inner-city communities and families by removing large numbers of men
  • Normalizes incarceration as a rite-of-passage for many poor, minority youth
  • Harms children’s wellbeing when a parent is incarcerated

Public Health Costs

  • Increases spread of infectious diseases like HIV, hepatitis C and TB in crowded prisons
  • Leads to higher rates of mental illness, addiction and chronic health issues

Public Safety Costs

  • Harsher sentencing may have diminishing returns on reducing crime according to some studies
  • Cycling many people from cells to streets can increase overall instability
  • Prison gangs can foster more organized criminal activity on the outside
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While tough incarceration policies are aimed at public safety, some experts believe the overuse of prisons causes unintended consequences for families, health outcomes, economies and crime rates. A national debate continues around finding the right balance.

State-Level Reforms to Reduce Incarceration

In recent years, many states from different political backgrounds have successfully implemented reforms to reduce incarceration levels and prison spending:


Facing massive overcrowding and spending on prisons, California legislators passed the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011 that:

  • Capped state prison population at 137.5% of capacity
  • Shifted many non-violent, non-sexual offenders to county jails instead of state prisons
  • Increased parole for non-serious crimes
  • Focused more resources on rehabilitation programs

The state has closed 5 prisons since 2012 and ended overcrowding without an increase in crime. However, some argue the burden has fallen too much on counties now stuck with extra jail costs.


Texas has closed 8 prisons in recent years by:

  • Giving judges more discretion on mandatory minimums
  • Expanding alternative sanctions for parole violations
  • Allocating more funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment
  • Removing or lowering drug possession penalties

The reforms helped shrink Texas’ incarceration rate by 26% from 2007 to 2017, while both crime and unemployment declined statewide.


Republican state leaders passed comprehensive prison reform legislation in 2022, saying:

  • “Being smart and tough on crime means finding alternatives to long prison sentences when possible.”

Reforms included:

  • Reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes
  • Increasing parole eligibility
  • Funding more supervision programs to ease re-entry
  • Expanding mental health courts and addiction treatment

Mississippi expects to cut its prison population by 20% while saving taxpayers money long-term.

Case Studies: When Does Incarceration Go Too Far?

Looking at individual cases can illustrate times when lengthy prison sentences were disproportionate to the crimes committed:

Timothy Jackson – Sentenced to Life for $20 Marijuana Sale

Timothy Jackson was 24 years old when he sold an undercover New Orleans police officer two small bags of marijuana for a total of $20. At the time, Jackson was homeless and struggling with chronic drug addiction after returning from the Iraq War. This was his first felony conviction.

However, because the sale occurred within 1,000 feet of a school, Jackson received a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole under Louisiana’s repeat offender law. The cost to imprison someone for life is estimated at $1 million. Jackson’s attorney said the case was “a sad example of how harsh mandatory minimum sentences can be.”

Fate Vincent Winslow – Life Sentence for $10 of Marijuana

In 2008, a 47-year old homeless man named Fate Vincent Winslow was arrested in Louisiana for selling $10 worth of marijuana to an undercover police officer. Winslow had been incarcerated before for simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen items.

Due to the state’s repeat offender law, he received an automatic life sentence with no parole for this third strike. The ACLU filed an appeal arguing the sentence was unconstitutional under the 8th amendment for being “excessive.” Winslow died in prison before his appeal was heard. It cost Louisiana taxpayers over $500,000 to imprison him for the last 10 years of his life.

Ronald Evans – Over 41 Years for $120 in Robberies

When he was 22, Ronald Evans and two friends went on a two-day robbery spree netting them a total of $120 from 5 victims in the Washington D.C. area. They typically took $5 or $10 from people to buy food while under the influence of PCP. No injuries were reported.

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However, Evans was given a 1-15 year sentence for each robbery conviction based on mandatory minimums, to be served consecutively. After 41 years in prison, Evans was granted parole in 2015 at age 63. Evans’ 42-year sentence was criticized as extreme by inmate advocates given the nature of his crimes.

Critics Argue Sentences Must Fit the Crime

Opponents of current sentencing laws point to cases like these as examples of overly harsh punishment that doesn’t align with the severity of offenses. They say sentences should be handed down fairly and rationally based on circumstances rather than blindly following inflexible mandatory minimums. With prisons costing tens of thousands per inmate annually, taxpayers also shoulder the financial burden of unnecessary incarceration.

Frequently Asked Questions on Prison Costs

Which states spend the most on prisons per inmate?

The states with the highest average annual costs per state prison inmate are New York ($69,000), California ($81,000), Connecticut ($60,000) and Massachusetts ($73,000). High costs are driven by large staffs, infrastructure expenses, inmate healthcare and correctional officer salaries and benefits.

Do private prisons save taxpayer money compared to public prisons?

Some research shows private prisons save 10-15% compared to public prisons. Private facilities often operate with lower staffing costs, fewer programs and minimal health services. However, studies conflict on whether the savings outweigh the downsides of lower safety levels and lack of transparency. Public employee labor unions also argue private prisons take away corrections jobs.

How much do inmate educational and vocational programs cost per prisoner?

Inmate education programs cost an average of $1,400 to $1,744 per prisoner annually according to the Department of Justice. These can include GED, ESL, college classes, vocational training, computer skills and therapy. Advocates say education offers a strong return on investment by reducing recidivism.

What are prison construction costs per inmate?

The cost to build a single maximum-security inmate cell was about $140,000 to $150,000 in 2011, with overall prison construction running $50,000 to $100,000 per bed. As prison populations declined in the late 2000s, some states spent heavily on new facilities just before incarceration rates dropped. Newer “green prisons” can cost over $200,000 per bed.

How much money is spent on inmate healthcare?

BOP spent $1.6 billion on inmate healthcare in FY 2020, or about 20 percent of their overall budget. States collectively spend over $8 billion on prisoner healthcare every year. Inmates are entitled to care under the 8th amendment but keeping costs down remains a challenge for corrections departments. The elderly inmate population is the most expensive.


The United States incarcerates over 1.8 million people in prisons and jails today, far outpacing other nations. This mass incarceration comes at a high price for taxpayers, with combined federal and state spending on corrections now over $80 billion annually.

Much of this money goes towards large staffs, healthcare, security infrastructure and programs required by law. But there are also significant social, economic and health costs to keeping such a large segment of the population behind bars. With state budgets strained, there is growing scrutiny on these expenses and whether current tough-on-crime policies are worth the investment.

While ensuring public safety is paramount, both liberal and conservative states have found ways to enact reforms to reduce prison populations without endangering communities. Continuing to find the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation will determine the shape of America’s criminal justice system and the billions spent on it for years to come.

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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