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How Much Is It To House A Prisoner Per Year?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2021, there were over 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons. Housing all of these prisoners comes at a massive cost to taxpayers. Analyzing the factors that contribute to the high cost of housing inmates can lead to ideas on how to reduce spending while still maintaining public safety.

Average Cost to House a Prisoner Per Year

The cost of housing an inmate varies from state to state. However, most studies estimate the average cost per prisoner nationally is around $30,000 to $60,000 per year. A breakdown of the average annual cost to house a prisoner includes:

  • Housing: $12,000 to $60,000
  • Food: $1,500 to $3,500
  • Clothing: $500 to $1,500
  • Transportation: $500 to $1,500
  • Health care: $5,000 to $20,000

This can add up to around $35,000 to $90,000 per prisoner per year. The cost is higher in states like New York where the average annual cost per prisoner is over $60,000.

Factors Driving High Costs

Several key factors drive up the costs of housing inmates in the U.S:

Staffing

Staffing prisons is highly labor-intensive. Guards, administrators, physicians, nurses, therapists, cooks and other staff must be hired. The ratio of staff to prisoners in the U.S. is high compared to international standards. Salaries and benefits for staff account for around 2/3 of spending on corrections.

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Healthcare

Inmates are entitled to health care under the law. Most inmates arrive with chronic medical or mental health conditions. Treating conditions like diabetes, heart disease, infections and mental illness in the incarcerated population drives up per inmate costs.

Aging Prison Population

The number of prisoners age 55 or older has gone up significantly. Older inmates cost about 2 to 3 times as much to care for due to higher medical costs. Adaptations like wheelchair ramps must also be made.

Security Level

It costs around 2 times as much to house an inmate in a high-security facility compared to a lower security prison. Violent offenders often require more security staffing and ancillary expenses.

Type of Facility

Some facilities like medical centers or specialized treatment units have much higher costs per prisoner than general population prisons. These spaces require extra staffing, high-tech equipment and specialized treatments.

Private Prisons

Private, for-profit prisons actually have similar or higher costs per prisoner compared to government-run institutions. Any cost savings are achieved through cutting staff, training and programming.

State-by-State Costs to House Prisoners

The average cost per inmate varies significantly from state to state based on labor costs, facilities and services provided. Here are estimated costs per prisoner per year for a sample of states:

California

$81,458 per prisoner

California spends the most on its inmates due to high costs of living, medical care, services and salaries. However, costs were reduced through prison reforms and population reduction efforts.

New York

$69,355 per inmate

New York has the third highest average cost per prisoner driven by high staffing levels and generous employee benefits and pensions.

Florida

$54,522 per prisoner

Above-average inmate healthcare costs contribute to Florida’s high per-prisoner spending. The state also outsources over 10% of inmates to private facilities.

Texas

$22,012 per inmate

Texas keeps costs low by having large prisons, extensive use of privatization, and limiting inmate healthcare and programming. However, the state has been ordered to improve conditions.

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Louisiana

$16,804 per prisoner

Louisiana has the lowest costs per prisoner in the U.S. Spending is kept down through large-scale incarceration, low staffing levels and minimal services. Healthcare costs are among the lowest.

Efforts to Reduce Costs

With state budgets squeezed, policymakers have been examining ways to reduce prison populations and lower spending on corrections:

  • Sentencing Reforms– Reducing mandatory minimum sentences and increasing parole eligibility helps cut inmate populations.
  • Alternatives to Incarceration– Greater use of probation, diversion programs and community corrections for non-violent offenders reduces prison populations.
  • Early Release Programs– Allowing inmates to earn time off their sentences through good behavior and program participation incentivizes rehabilitation.
  • Reduced Recidivism– Educational and vocational programs for inmates have been shown to reduce re-incarceration and future costs.
  • Privatization– Contracting with for-profit prisons reduces costs 15-20% on average. However, many worry it compromises safety and rehabilitation.
  • Reduced Staffing Ratios– Right-sizing the number of staff through attrition, early retirement plans and renegotiated contracts can yield big savings.

Notable Criminal Cases and Costs of Incarceration

Below is a table summarizing total costs to imprison a few well-known criminals based on average annual costs in their state and time served:

PrisonerYears ServedAvg Annual Cost in StateTotal Cost
Bernie Madoff150 years (sentenced)$69,355 (NY)$10.4 million
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmánlife + 30 years (sentenced)$81,458 (CA)$2.4+ million
Scott Petersonlife without parole (sentenced)$81,458 (CA)$2.4+ million
Jeffrey Skilling12 years (served)$22,012 (TX)$264,144
Casey Anthony3 years (served)$54,522 (FL)$163,566

While extreme sentences grab headlines, most prisoners serve just a few years. However, those years still rack up big costs. Reducing mass incarceration provides huge potential savings.

Conclusion

The average cost to house a prisoner in the United States is around $30,000 to $60,000 per year, with costs in some states approaching $80,000 annually. Key drivers of these high costs include staffing, healthcare, aging inmates, facility security levels and privatization approaches.

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While incarceration plays an important role in the justice system, its overuse has become a massive burden on government budgets. Right-sizing sentences, expanding parole and probation, and funding re-entry programs could all potentially yield long-term reductions in prison populations and lower costs per inmate. Additional reforms to reduce staffing ratios, contain healthcare costs and streamline operations can further contain the huge taxpayer expense that prisons currently incur.

With smarter sentencing policies and a targeted approach to reducing recidivism through education, job training and treatment, the United States can maintain public safety while also easing the strain on state and federal budgets. The high annual price tag to house each prisoner shows the need for a balanced criminal justice system that focuses resources toward the most dangerous offenders while utilizing more cost-effective interventions with lower-risk individuals.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to house an inmate per day?

The average cost to house an inmate per day is $81-$190, which translates to $30,000-$60,000 per year. The cost per day is higher in high-cost states like New York and California.

How much do prisoners cost taxpayers each year?

Inmates in the U.S. prison system cost taxpayers nearly $60 billion per year for housing costs based on average per prisoner annual costs and current prison populations.

Why is the cost per inmate so high in the United States?

Key drivers of high per-inmate costs include healthcare, staffing, security levels, aging inmate populations, and facility types. Most other developed countries spend far less per prisoner.

Do private prisons reduce costs?

Privatized prisons reduce costs about 15-20% on average compared to government-run facilities through lower staffing levels and reduced programming and services. However, many worry this compromises rehabilitation efforts.

What are some ways states are trying to lower costs?

States use reforms like sentence reduction, expanded parole, probation diversions, early release incentives, anti-recidivism programs, and privatization efforts to try to reduce inmate populations and lower per-prisoner costs.

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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