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How Much Money Goes Into Prisons?

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 and local jails across the country. Housing this many inmates comes at a huge cost to taxpayers.

This article will examine the various expenses associated with running prisons and jails, and look at ways the criminal justice system could be reformed to reduce the financial burden.

Staffing prisons is expensive

The largest cost associated with incarceration is staffing the facilities. This includes salaries and benefits for correctional officers, wardens, administrators, maintenance workers, healthcare professionals, counselors, and more.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, around $14 billion per year is spent just on prison staff nationwide. The average annual salary for a correctional officer is over $56,000. With over 400,000 correctional officers employed in the US, their compensation accounts for over 30% of state prison budgets.

Providing health insurance and retirement benefits for prison staff also adds substantial costs. These benefits are necessary to attract and retain qualified employees in a demanding profession. However, some critics argue that prison employee benefits are too generous given the nature of the work.

Reducing health and retirement packages for corrections staff could potentially yield billions in savings.

Prison infrastructure and operational costs

In addition to personnel, the infrastructure and day-to-day operations of prisons cost taxpayers dearly:

  • Facilities maintenance and utilities – Heating, cooling, and lighting correctional facilities, plus maintenance and repairs, costs states $8.5 billion annually.
  • Food and supplies – Feeding, clothing, and caring for millions of inmates costs $4 billion per year nationwide.
  • Medical care – While inmates have a constitutional right to healthcare, their care costs states $8.1 billion per year.
  • Information technology – Surveillance cameras, communications systems, and data management platforms carry a $2 billion per year price tag.
  • Transportation of inmates – Moving inmates between facilities for transfers, court dates, and releases costs states $1 billion annually.
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When you add up these and other operational expenses, the cost of running the nation’s prisons and jails jumps substantially. Some experts estimate that total per-inmate operational costs can range from $30,000-$60,000 annually, depending on the facility.

Programs and services for inmate rehabilitation

While basic food and shelter account for most correctional budgets, many prisons also offer various programs and services aimed at reforming inmates and reducing recidivism:

  • Education and vocational training – Basic education, high school equivalency degrees, and vocational skills courses cost states $1.1 billion per year.
  • Substance abuse treatment – Drug rehab and counseling for addicted inmates costs states $9 billion annually.
  • Mental healthcare – With high rates of mental illness among inmates, providing psychiatric care and counseling costs states $5.5 billion per year.
  • Case managers and rehabilitation coordinators – These specialized staff cost states $2.3 billion per year.

Although rehabilitative programming yields benefits through lower recidivism, still more could be done on this front at significant taxpayer expense. Whether current rehabilitation expenditures are sufficient is hotly debated.

The expanding costs of incarceration over time

The combined costs of staffing, infrastructure, operations, programming, and services adds up to $80 billion that federal, state, and local governments spend on corrections each year. Given that figure, it’s worth looking at how spending on prisons and jails has grown over time:

  • 1985 – Total incarceration costs were $7 billion nationwide.
  • 1996 – Costs doubled in a decade to $14 billion.
  • 2006 – Costs doubled again to $44 billion.
  • 2016 – Total costs exceeded $80 billion.

Several factors drove these costs higher, including a surging prison population, an increasing number of people employed in corrections, and healthcare costs rising faster than inflation. Going forward, experts project that incarceration costs will continue to consume an ever-larger share of state budgets unless reforms are enacted.

Case Studies: Notorious Criminals and the Cost of Their Incarceration

While prison costs are normally discussed as macro level trends, looking at specific cases helps provide perspective on how lengthy sentences and rare inmates rack up huge imprisonment bills for taxpayers:

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Charles Manson

  • Crimes: As cult leader of the Manson Family commune, orchestrated the murders of 7 people in 1969, including actress Sharon Tate.
  • Sentence: Originally sentenced to death, but was commuted to life when California abolished the death penalty.
  • Years incarcerated: 48 years, from 1971 until his death in 2017.
  • Estimated cost: At $75,000 per year for costs associated with geriatric and infirm inmate care, the total cost was approx. $3.6 million.

Bernie Madoff

  • Crime: Ran the largest Ponzi scheme in history, defrauding thousands of investors out of $65 billion.
  • Sentence: 150 years in prison for money laundering, securities fraud, etc.
  • Years incarcerated: 10 years from 2009 until his death in 2021.
  • Estimated cost: Over $1 million at approximately $100,000 per year for a high-security federal prison.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman

  • Crime: As leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, smuggled billions in drugs into the US.
  • Sentence: Life in prison plus 30 years.
  • Years incarcerated: Expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
  • Estimated cost: $60 million+ given strict security measures and assuming 40+ years imprisoned.

While the high costs for these rare notorious inmates paints one picture, the much larger overall costs associated with non-violent drug offenders and those awaiting trial paints another.

Recommendations for Reducing Prison Costs

There are a variety of policy reforms that could help state governments contain the ever-rising expenses associated with incarceration, including:

Reduce prison staffing and employee benefits

  • Cap paid time off accrual for corrections staff
  • Increase health premium contributions and copays
  • Enroll corrections staff in less costly pension systems
  • Freeze salaries during budgetary crises

Reduce inmate populations

  • Release more elderly and reformed inmates
  • Relax or eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws
  • Decriminalize minor offenses like marijuana possession
  • Enact comprehensive sentencing reform
  • Expand good behavior credits to allow early release

Improve rehabilitation and anti-recidivism efforts

  • Invest more in vocational and educational training
  • Increase counseling and therapy for mental health and addiction
  • Remove barriers to prison employment and adopt pay-for-performance
  • Strengthen community reentry and supervision programs

Reform corrections procurement and infrastructure

  • Renegotiate food, medical, and supply vendor contracts
  • Consolidate prison management to reduce administrative costs
  • Close underutilized prisons and expand capacity through reform

Through some combination of these and other reforms, policymakers could maintain public safety while also alleviating the massive taxpayer burden associated with incarceration.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Prison Costs

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

The average cost to house an inmate for one year is around $36,000, but can range from $25,000 to $60,000 depending on the state and specific prison. Maximum security prisons cost the most.

What is the total annual budget for prisons in the United States?

Federal and state governments spend around $80 billion per year on prisons. Local jails cost an additional $30 billion annually. So the total annual cost is $110 billion across all levels of government.

How many people work in corrections in the US?

There are around 420,000 correctional officers working in prisons and jails in the United States. When you include administrative staff, healthcare workers, maintenance crews, and prison industry workers, the total number employed in corrections is over 600,000 nationwide.

Why does it cost so much more to imprison someone than to grant probation?

Incarceration requires extensive infrastructure, guards, medical care, food services, and security – all costs taxpayers bear. Probation allows convicts to maintain jobs to pay fines and restitution while reporting to a probation officer at a much lower public cost.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected prison costs?

Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has driven up costs to test inmates, reduce overcrowding, and provide healthcare. But prison populations also decreased significantly due to restricted intake, early release, and legal changes to lower jail populations. Long-term impacts remain uncertain.


The United States spends over $80 billion annually on prisons and jails. These costs have risen steadily for decades due to high incarceration rates, facilities expenses, prison staffing costs, and healthcare. While expenditures on rehabilitative programming have also grown, America’s focus on incarceration over probation or alternative sentencing still imposes a huge burden on taxpayers.

Through reforms to sentencing laws, prison staffing, healthcare, and inmate rehabilitation programs, policymakers could potentially lower incarceration costs without compromising public safety. Citizens and officials must weigh these options given the substantial portion of state budgets consumed by corrections costs.

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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