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How Much Does The Prison System Cost?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2 million Americans are currently behind bars in prisons and jails across the country.

This mass incarceration comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers and communities. In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the many factors that make the American prison system so expensive and whether these costs are justified.

The Scale of Mass Incarceration

The American prison population has skyrocketed since the 1970s. In 1972, there were 196,092 prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities. By 2019, that number had grown over 600% to 1,430,800. Over 10.6 million people cycle through local jails every year as well. Some key factors driving mass incarceration include:

  • Harsher sentencing laws, including mandatory minimums and “three-strikes” rules
  • The War on Drugs which has disproportionately impacted minorities
  • High rates of recidivism with over 75% of released prisoners rearrested within 5 years

This explosion in the prison population has led to severe overcrowding. Many facilities now house more inmates than they were designed for, endangering health and safety. Prisoners are often doubled up in cells meant for one, while others are housed in makeshift dormitories. The demand for cells has far outpaced capacity.

The Financial Costs of Mass Incarceration

Housing America’s vast prisoner population comes at an enormous price to taxpayers. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, federal and state governments spend over $80 billion per year on corrections. Some key financial costs include:

Infrastructure and Operational Costs

  • Constructing new prisons and jails
  • Staffing facilities with guards, healthcare workers, and other personnel
  • Providing food, healthcare, programs, and utilities for prisoners
  • Transportation of inmates

The average cost per inmate nationally is around $33,000 per year, with high-security facilities costing over $60,000 on average. With over 2 million behind bars, these costs add up rapidly. States like California and New York spend over $60 billion annually on their prison systems.

Legal and Judicial Costs

  • Salaries for judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, court reporters, expert witnesses
  • Pre-trial costs like bail, investigations, motions hearings
  • Appeals process and constitutional challenges

Death penalty cases in particular rack up huge legal costs, often millions per case before someone is executed. Life sentences also incur decades of appeals. Even when defendants plead guilty, the system must absorb administrative costs.

Burdens on Families and Communities

Families of incarcerated people often face financial and emotional hardships from legal fees, lost income, childcare costs, and the stigma of incarceration. Single parents in prison often leave children stranded in inadequate kinship care. Prisoners themselves accumulate debts from court fines, supervision fees, and child support payments which haunt them after release.

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Communities with high incarceration rates also suffer lower economic growth and productivity. Tax dollars spent on prisons cannot be invested elsewhere. High recidivism returns prisoners to the same disadvantaged neighborhoods. Mass incarceration thereby creates a vicious cycle of poverty.

State and Federal Prison Costs

Let’s break down the prison expenditures across different systems to understand where these billions in costs arise.

Federal Prison Costs

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has an annual budget of over $8 billion for its 122 facilities across the country. The BOP houses nearly 150,000 federal inmates convicted of federal crimes like drug trafficking, financial fraud, and immigration violations. The average cost per federal inmate is $36,000 per year. High-security penitentiaries cost over $60,000 on average to house long-term inmates. Major federal prison costs include:

  • Guard salaries and benefits – $4.4 billion
  • Food, medical care, utilities for prisoners – $1.5 billion
  • Facility maintenance and upkeep – $482 million
  • Inmate phone calls and correspondence – $195 million
  • Staff training – $109 million

Federal prisons have faced rising personnel costs due to understaffing and cost overrides by Congress. The BOP manages high-security terrorists and gang members requiring maximum expenditures for security and monitoring.

State Prison Costs

States collectively spend over $50 billion per year on their prisons and jails. State facilities house violent offenders, drug users, mentally ill inmates, and material witnesses. The average annual cost per state prisoner is over $35,000 but rises much higher for elderly prisoners with chronic health conditions. Personnel costs eat up large chunks of state budgets:

  • Salaries for corrections officers – up to $30 billion
  • State contributions to prison employee pension plans and health benefits – over $5 billion

Other major state prison costs include inmate healthcare ($12 billion), food service contracts, utilities, building maintenance and groundskeeping. New prison construction also drains state coffers at costs exceeding $100 million per new maximum-security complex.

County and Local Jail Costs

America’s 3,000+ local jails help house the overflow of state inmates and defendants awaiting trial. But jails have also taken on more long-term inmates serving short sentences. With 10.6 million jail admissions per year, these facilities now cost counties and cities over $25 billion annually for operations and staffing:

  • Corrections personnel – $14 billion
  • Inmate medical care – $5 billion
  • Food service – $2.5 billion
  • Mental health and drug treatment programs – $2 billion

Unlike state and federal prisons which usually house inmates long-term, local jails deal with tremendous turnover. Arrests for minor offenses like drug possession, public intoxication, and traffic violations fill up jail beds. Large urban jails like Rikers Island and L.A. County are notorious for their violence, squalor, and scandalous conditions.

Burgeoning Prison Healthcare Costs

One fast-rising component of correctional budgets is inmate healthcare and mental health treatment. Prisons must provide basic care to inmates under the 8th Amendment but long-term elderly prisoners cost far more than healthy young inmates. Key healthcare expenditures include:

  • On-site medical and dental staff to treat acute and chronic physical health conditions – up to $5 billion
  • Prescription drugs, medical equipment, lab tests, emergency care – $2 billion
  • Mental health counselors and psychiatric medications – $1 billion
  • Substance abuse treatment with therapy and medications – $500 million
  • Hospice and palliative care for terminally ill inmates – $100 million

Major cost drivers are an aging prison population susceptible to heart disease, cancer, diabetes; HIV and Hepatitis C infections, serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, along with drug and alcohol addiction. Disabled elderly inmates can cost an average of $100,000 a year for 24-hour skilled nursing care. These expenses will continue to climb as prisons double as de facto nursing homes.

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Are Rising Prison Costs Justified?

This massive and growing level of public expenditure on prisons raises questions of how to balance costs and benefits to society. Some key considerations in this debate include:

  • Deterrence and public safety – Incarceration provides punishment for crimes and keeps dangerous people off the streets. But long sentences even for minor crimes may reach a point of diminishing returns. And high recidivism rates show that many prisoners continue committing crimes after release.
  • Rehabilitation vs retribution – Simply locking people away in brutal conditions with little rehabilitation may produce more hardened criminals. But programs like education, job training, drug treatment could reduce recidivism at a reasonable cost.
  • Availability of alternatives – Community supervision, electronic monitoring, and restorative justice programs could substitute for prison in some cases – often at lower cost. But enough capacity is needed.
  • Obligation to inmates – Prisons must meet basic health and nutrition standards per the 8th Amendment. But with an aging population, the standard of care owed to inmates will increase prison healthcare spending.
  • Obligation to employee unions – Correctional staff unions advocate for increased hiring and higher wages. But personnel costs are already unsustainable at current levels.

There are no easy solutions. But evidence shows that mass incarceration has reached diminishing returns as a penal policy. Lowering prison populations and right-sizing the system could help control costs while maintaining public safety.

Sentencing reform, expanded parole/probation, decriminalization of minor offenses, increased rehabilitation programming, and adequate mental health resources are all needed to help rein in America’s world-leading incarceration rate. With smart reforms, we can redirect billions in prison spending to more productive uses that benefit public health, education, infrastructure, and communities.

Major Crime Cases and Their Associated Costs

Below is a table of selected high-profile criminal cases and their estimated taxpayer costs including investigation, prosecution, defense, incarceration, and appeals:

Defendant(s)CrimeEstimated Cost
Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth LayEnron Fraud$23 million
Bernie MadoffPonzi Scheme$21 million
Dzhokhar TsarnaevBoston Marathon bombing$16 million
Jodi AriasMurder of Travis Alexander$3 million
Scott PetersonMurder of Laci Peterson$2.4 million
O.J. SimpsonMurder of Nicole Brown Simpson$9 million
Casey AnthonyMurder of Caylee Anthony$7 million
Aurora Movie Theater Shooter James HolmesMurder of 12 people$5 million
D.C. Snipers John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd MalvoMurder spree$10 million
Unabomber Ted KaczynskiMail bombings$15 million

These complex cases incur significant costs during lengthy investigations and prosecutions. High-profile murders and terrorism result in added security expenditures over months or years until the trial concludes. Defendants are entitled to robust legal defenses costing millions in public funds.

Lengthy appeals processes to review death penalty cases or life sentences span decades in some cases. While justice is invaluable, the extreme costs highlight the need to consider sentencing and alternatives carefully in such high-stakes cases.

Quotes on Prison Costs from U.S. Judges and Legal Experts

“Every dollar spent on imprisonment results in one dollar less for other things like healthcare, education, infrastructure, and national defense. It is past time for us to take a fresh look at criminal justice and align our system with what works best for our citizens.” – Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“Warehousing people in prison is incredibly expensive. Spending billions on old, overcrowded facilities makes little fiscal sense, especially when evidence shows that community supervision and targeted treatment could achieve similar public safety goals at a fraction of the cost.” – 9th Circuit Judge Myron Bright

“The greatest waste in America today is the over 2 million people behind bars. It’s a moral and fiscal tragedy that our prison spending has tripled while funding for education declined. Rethinking sentencing for non-violent crimes and reforming parole are smart investments in our future.” – Professor Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University Law School

“The billions spent on mass incarceration damage families and communities while often making one-time offenders into hardened career criminals. Justice and public safety demand smart reforms to expand rehabilitation and supervised reentry programs proven to reduce recidivism.” – Professor Craig Haney, University of California Psychology Department

These legal experts concur that the astronomical costs of mass incarceration have surpassed any marginal benefits to society. Targeted reforms to reduce prison populations, cut extreme sentences, and increase rehabilitative programming can maintain public safety at a sustainable cost. Science shows that humane prisons focused on rehabilitation produce better outcomes than bleak warehouses of forgotten lives.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to incarcerate someone for life?

The average cost to incarcerate a prisoner sentenced to life is estimated between $1.5 – $2 million total. This factors in yearly costs of $30,000-60,000 for 50 years including healthcare, plus legal costs for appeals that can reach hundreds of thousands per case.

What percentage of the US federal budget goes to prisons?

Around 6-7% of the total federal budget goes to prisons and incarceration-related costs like the FBI, ATF, and US Attorneys. The BOP alone gets around $8 billion annually or 0.5% of the total federal budget.

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

The 8th Amendment obligates prisons to provide basic medical and mental healthcare to inmates. With long sentences, many prisoners develop chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and dementia that are very costly in advanced age. Not providing adequate care can be ruled unconstitutional.

How do private prisons make a profit if they get the same state funding?

Private prisons reduce costs through lower pay and benefits for staff plus barebones programming and healthcare for inmates. But private corporations still profit from state and federal per-diem rates for inmates that can exceed actual costs due to lax oversight.

Could we reduce prison budgets by making inmates pay room and board?

A few states like Florida, Michigan, and Louisiana charge prisoners room and board fees. But these account for less than 1% of prison budgets. Inmates often enter prison very poor or in debt and cannot realistically offset the $30,000+ annual cost of incarcerating each person.


America’s experiment in exceptionally harsh sentencing and corrections has led to world-leading rates of incarceration. But the financial and social costs now strain budgets while doing little to improve public safety. Mass incarceration often traps formerly incarcerated people in poverty while tearing families apart. New approaches are needed that distinguish truly dangerous criminals from those who pose little threat when supervised in the community.

Right-sizing prison populations through reforms, expanding rehabilitation programs, removing profit motives, and adequately funding parole and probation supervision could potentially save billions in avoided incarceration costs. Taking a more rehabilitative, cost-effective and humane approach to corrections shows greater wisdom than mindlessly filling cells hoping to set right society’s wrongs.

There are better ways to hold offenders accountable while also upholding our shared interests of justice, public safety, and the common good. With courage and compassion, we can build a society that liberates our best hopes, not one that merely imprisons our deepest fears.

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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