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How Much Is It To House A Prisoner?

The cost of housing prisoners is a major expense for state and federal governments. With over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, prisons and jails have become big business. But how much does it actually cost taxpayers to house all these prisoners?

In this comprehensive article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the costs associated with housing inmates, from construction to healthcare to food service. We’ll also examine the factors that influence these costs and how states are trying to reduce their prison budgets.

Prison Construction and Maintenance

Building New Prisons

One of the biggest costs associated with housing prisoners is actually building the prisons themselves. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, states spent over $7 billion on new prison construction from 2011-2012. The average cost to build a new medium-security state prison is around $200 million. High-security facilities can cost even more, with some facilities topping $400 million. Private prisons can be cheaper to construct, averaging around $100 million for a 1500 bed facility.

Prison construction costs have risen dramatically in recent decades. From 1980 to 2010, state spending on prison construction increased over 375% after adjusting for inflation. Many states went on massive prison building sprees during this time to accommodate rapidly expanding prison populations during the “tough on crime” era. However, prison populations have declined slightly since 2010, leaving some states with excess capacity.

Maintenance and Utilities

In addition to construction costs, the maintenance and operation of prison facilities is hugely expensive. Prisons require extensive security measures and infrastructure. Access control systems, perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, x-ray machines and other security technologies all contribute to operating costs.

In terms of utilities, prisons spend enormous amounts on electricity, gas, water and sewage service to accommodate the needs of inmates and staff. For example, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spends over $200 million annually on utility costs alone. Telecommunications also adds to the expense, with many prisons spending millions per year on inmate phone calls and administrative phone lines.

Other maintenance costs include groundskeeping, waste disposal, pest control and general repairs. Older prisons can be especially costly to maintain, with some states estimating over $100 million in deferred maintenance costs for antiquated facilities. Preventative maintenance and prompt repairs are necessary to keeping prisons safe and habitable. If deferred for too long, small issues can snowball into major expenses.

Prison Staffing and Labor

Staffing prisons is another huge driver of costs. Salaries and benefits for correctional officers and other staff account for 60-80% of a state’s corrections budget. The American Correctional Association recommends one guard per five inmates for minimum security prisons, with higher staffing ratios for more secure facilities. With thousands of prisoners to watch over, staffing quickly adds up.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are approximately 454,000 correctional officers working in the U.S. Their median annual salary is around $48,750, or $23.40 per hour. However, pay varies widely by state, with some states paying well over $30/hour. With overtime, retirement benefits, health insurance and other compensation included, the total cost per officer easily exceeds $100,000 annually.

In addition to line-level guards, prisons employ management, administrative staff, maintenance crews, groundskeepers, janitors, cooks and more. Highly paid medical and mental health professionals are also required to care for inmate needs.

All told, staff-related costs consume the lion’s share of prison budgets. Some states are attempting to control these costs by restricting overtime, replacing pensions with 401(k) plans, and streamlining operations. However, many view correctional officers as underpaid for their risky work, leading to efforts to improve pay, benefits, and working conditions.

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Inmate Healthcare and Medication

Another major cost driver is inmate healthcare and medication. Prisons are constitutionally required to provide healthcare to prisoners. However, the prisoner population tends to be sicker and have higher medical needs than the general public.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, around 40% of inmates have at least one chronic health condition such as diabetes, heart disease or HIV. Additionally, many inmates suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues requiring treatment. An estimated 56% of state prisoners have some form of mental illness.

The high rates of illness and disabilityamong inmates translate into staggering medical costs:

  • The average healthcare cost per inmate ranged from $5,720 in Kentucky to $19,796 in California, according to a PEW study.
  • Total per inmate spending on health care averaged $7,927 per state prisoner nationally, versus just $4,860 for the average person not in prison.
  • Pharmacy costs are especially high, with some states spending over $2,500 per inmate just on medication.
  • Dental care, medical supplies, medical equipment, and ambulances/hospital transportation add to costs as well.

Controlling inmate healthcare and pharmacy costs has proven very difficult for states. Some are trying approaches like HMOs to rein in expenses. But with an aging prison population, medical spending is projected to keep rising. The portion of state budgets devoted to inmate healthcare has already nearly doubled over the past two decades in many states.

Food Service and Supplies

Providing food is another fundamental requirement for housing inmates. Correctional facilities operate massive food service operations, serving millions of meals each year to incarcerated individuals. While prison food may have a reputation for being inedible, most facilities have at least minimal standards for nutritional adequacy. Typical state prisons have inmates consuming 2,500 – 3,500 calories per day.

Food service and supplies therefore become a sizable correctional cost:

  • The average cost per meal for feeding an inmate is $1.25 – $2.25 in most state prison systems.
  • With 2-3 meals served per day, feeding an inmate for a year costs approximately $1,500 – $2,500.
  • Larger state prison systems have annual food budgets exceeding $100 million.
  • Food costs represent around 5-10% of a typical state’s overall prison spending.

Prisons seek to control food costs in different ways. Some grow their own produce, run inmate culinary job training programs, or install bulk-cooking equipment to gain economies of scale. But varying nutritional standards, meal service practices, and regional food costs still drive significant variation in what states pay to feed their prisoners.

Additional Costs

Beyond the major items outlined above, imprisoning individuals incurs many additional costs, including:

  • Inmate supplies and services – Clothing, bedding, toiletries, laundry, haircuts
  • Programs and education – Literacy programs, job training, libraries, recreation
  • Transport and booking – Intake, transfers between facilities, medical transports
  • Administrative costs – Payroll, procurement, accounting, information systems
  • Legal costs – Lawsuits over conditions, officer misconduct, etc.

Though small individually, these additional costs add up across large prison systems. Some states estimate that overhead accounts for 15-20% of their total corrections spending when all ancillary costs are included.

Reducing ancillary costs involves getting leaner on everything from supplies procurement to staff scheduling and routing transports more efficiently. However, eliminating any services deemed non-essential also carries risks of deteriorating prison conditions.

Factors Influencing Prison Costs

Many interlocking factors determine a jurisdiction’s exact costs for housing inmates in jails and prisons. Key factors include:

Prison Population Size

As one might expect, the overall size of the prison population is the biggest driver of spending. All costs directly correlate with the number of inmates incarcerated. Some states like California and Texas house over 130,000 prisoners each, costing billions annually. Small states may house just a few thousand inmates, resulting in prison budgets under $100 million. However, the cost per inmate averages around $30,000-$60,000 across most states.

Types of Facilities

High security prisons with maximum-control features are the most expensive facilities to build and operate. Lower security facilities like minimum security or community corrections centers have much lower costs. Restrictive supermax prisons and medical/mental health units also come at a premium. The mix of facilities impacts overall cost efficiency. States try to match inmates appropriately to the most cost-effective facility based on risk and needs.

Prison Overcrowding

Running prisons over their designed capacities strains resources enormously, raising both capital and operating costs. Overcrowded prisons require heavy expenditures on health care, food services, utilities, maintenance and overtime to account for the excess population. At certain thresholds, overcrowding has also led to federal court interventions and orders to reduce prison occupancy – forcing costly new construction.

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Infrastructure Age

As facilities age, maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs rise. Newer prisons generally have lower ongoing costs. However, states must balance investing in replacements versus prolonging use of older prisons. Mothballing unused facilities also carries costs for basic upkeep and reopeningavoidance of major future capital outlays.

Public Employee Compensation

Correctional staff account for most labor costs. State and local laws governing public sector collective bargaining, pay rates, pensions, and healthcare benefits thus directly impact prison budgets. For example, a few states like California offer guards very generous compensation and early retirement packages, driving salaries over $100,000/year. More austerity in labor contracts can yield substantial savings.

Inmate Health Factors

Aging inmates and prison populations with higher rates of chronic illness, communicable disease, addiction disorders and mental health issues all raise inmate medical costs. Providing constitutionally mandated access to treatment drives increased health services and pharmaceutical spending. Some states are seeing inmates require assisted living level of care – at tremendous expense.

Legal Obligations

Lawsuits and court interventions add costs when judges order states to remedy unconstitutional conditions, overcrowding, failures in medical care, or civil rights violations. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 and other measures have made large class action suits more difficult. But major lawsuits still regularly force states to build new prisons, add staff, or invest heavily to correct violations.


Construction and operating costs vary across states based on labor costs, land values, prevailing wages for public employees, and cost of services and supplies in the state. Rural states can build new prisons more cheaply than in urbanized coastal areas. Similarly, staffing, utilities and services cost less in regions with lower costs of living and public sector pay.

State Spending and Prison Budgets

With so many contributing factors, prison budgets and inmate costs fluctuate widely between states. Prison expenditures as a percentage of overall state general fund spending gives a sense of the burden on taxpayers:

  • New Hampshire spends over 7% of its general fund on corrections.
  • For Nevada, Oregon, Michigan, Montana and Vermont corrections accounts for 6-7% of general fund spending.
  • Most states devote 3-5% of their general fund to prisons. The national average is around 3.4%.
  • Historically, the portion of state budgets going to corrections has risen over the past three decades. More recent trends show many states reducing their prison spending as a share of government expenditures in favor of other programs.

In terms of actual expenditure, here are the total costs states are incurring for their prison systems:

  • California spends over $12 billion annually on its massive prison system.
  • Texas, New York and Florida have total prison budgets exceeding $3 billion.
  • Large states like Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois spend $1-3 billion on prisons.
  • Most midsize states have annual prison budgets in the $300 million to $900 million range.
  • Smaller states can spend under $150 million for a fiscal year’s corrections costs.

With prisons claiming substantial portions of state budgets, policymakers are increasingly scrutinizing correctional spending and exploring ways to reduce costs.

Strategies to Reduce Prison Budgets

States currently employ a range of strategies aimed at controlling prison expenditures, including:

Sentencing Reforms

Many states have enacted reforms like eliminating mandatory minimums, reducing sentences for drug crimes, and expanding early release programs. Keeping inmate populations down is key to controlling costs. Prison populations have declined over 5% since peaking in 2009, partly due to reforms.

Alternative Sanctions

Greater use of probation, diversion programs, home confinement, and community corrections aims to limit expensive incarceration to serious offenders. Some critics argue alternative sanctions are not always much cheaper than imprisonment however.

Outsourcing and Privatization

Around 9% of U.S. prisoners are housed in private prisons. Privately run facilities come at 15-20% savings on average. Critics argue private prisons cut costs at the expense of conditions and rehabilitation. Questions remain about effectiveness.

Reducing Staff Through Attrition

Not filling vacant staff positions, delaying new hiring, early retirement incentives and layoffs are personnel-based cost cutting measures. However most systems remain chronically understaffed, risking instability.

Scaling Back Facilities

Closing excess prisons and wings, restricting out-of-state inmate transfers and releasing vulnerable inmates are among the options states employ to consolidate prison populations into efficiently used facilities. This avoids unnecessary operational costs.

Cutting Amenities

Eliminating weight rooms, libraries, vocational programs and halting food service upgrades aim to deliver only minimally required services. However critics contend rehabilitative programming cuts increase recidivism.

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Medicaid Maximization

Getting medically eligible inmates onto Medicaid can shift costs from state corrections budgets to the federal government. However, only around 20% of eligible prisoners receive Medicaid currently.

Telemedicine and Community Care

Increased use of telemedicine for routine medical encounters, and contracting local providers for off-site specialty care is credited with reducing costs at some state prisons. This strategy avoids the need for expensive on-site capabilities.

Electronic Monitoring

Although not cheap, increased use of GPS monitoring and electronic supervision allows some inmates to be released early and monitored in the community at lower cost than prison housing.

Prison reforms and cost containment strategies remain a very active area of policymaking and debate. With incarceration making up a large share of state budgets, even modest cost reductions can yield substantial overall savings. But many attempts at reducing prison spending have had only limited success so far. The scale of the incarcerated population continues driving high costs even as states try to trim their corrections spending.

Convicted High Profile Defendants and Their Costs

Here is a table of 5 recent high profile criminal convictions and the estimated costs to incarcerate them:

DefendantCrimeSentenceEstimated Incarceration Cost
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmánDrug trafficking, murder conspiracyLife plus 30 years ADX supermax prison$2+ millionLifetime cost
Dylann RoofHate crime mass murderDeath sentence>$40,000 1-2 years on death row$60 millionCapital case and appeals
Larry NassarSex crimes, child pornography60 years in medium security$1.8 millionLifetime cost
Jared LoughnerMurder, attempted assassinationLife in max security prison$2 millionLifetime cost
James HolmesMass murder12 life sentences +3,318 years>$750,000Lifetime cost

El Chapo, as a high escape risk cartel leader, will serve his sentence in the extremely secure ADX Florence “supermax’ prison in Colorado. This imposes huge security costs estimated at over $60,000 annually per inmate. His lifetime incarceration will likely cost over $2 million factoring medical care over decades.

Dylann Roof’s federal death row incarceration will cost over $40,000 annually due to the high security solitary confinement required for death sentenced inmates. But the biggest expense was the multi-year capital case and appeals processes before conviction. Total costs are estimated around $60 million.

For Larry Nassar and other sex offenders, lifetime incarceration in secure federal prisons will amount to over $1.8 million each. Their 60 year sentences guarantee decades of taxpayer-funded room and board.

Jared Loughner as a high profile assassin attempt defendant also requires specialized max security imprisonment imposing over $2 million in lifetime state costs.

And James Holmes’ staggering 3,418 year sentence means lifetime incarceration. Even at medium security costs of $25,000 a year, he will rack up over $750,000 behind bars with medical expenses.

High profile cases like these incur huge costs for trial, appeals, enhanced security and decades of jailing. Taxpayers foot steep bills to punish crimes that shock the national conscience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to 5 key questions about the cost of housing prisoners:

How much does it cost to house an inmate for a year?

The average cost to house an inmate for a year is around $30,000 to $60,000 depending on the state and security level. Higher security prisons cost closer to $60,000 per inmate annually. Basic minimum security facilities can cost as low as $25,000 per inmate per year.

What are the main costs associated with housing prisoners?

Staff salaries and benefits account for 60-80% of costs. Healthcare, medication, food service, infrastructure and utilities account for most other spending. Additional costs include programming, transportation, administration and legal expenses.

Does it cost more to sentence someone to death vs life in prison?

Yes, death penalty cases require highly complex trial and appeals processes that make them far more expensive than life imprisonment. A death sentence may cost a state $1 million more than life without parole.

Do private prisons save money compared to public ones?

Most research shows private prisons achieve 10-20% in savings compared to public prisons with similar security levels. Critics argue those savings come from lower quality conditions and rehabilitation efforts.

How can states reduce the cost of housing inmates?

Strategies like sentencing reforms, alternative sanctions, increased parole, privatization, and Medicaid maximization can reduce incarceration and corrections spending. Consolidating and closing prison facilities also lowers costs. But major reductions remain challenging.


Housing America’s vast prison population imposes staggering costs on taxpayers, with states now spending billions every year on incarceration. Reducing those expenses through reforms, privatization, and alternative sentencing strategies remains an active policy issue.

But with over 2 million behind bars and persistent crime rates, the reality is imprisoning individuals will remain very costly. Going forward, expect vigorous debate on how to allocate scarce resources between incarceration and other government programs.

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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