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How Much of Our Tax Money Goes to Prisons?

Prisons and jails are a major expenditure in government budgets across the United States. With over 2 million people incarcerated, the costs add up quickly. But how much of our hard-earned tax dollars actually go towards funding these correctional facilities? In this comprehensive article, we will analyze the data and breakdown where our money is being spent.

The Overall Costs of Incarceration

The total spent on prisons and jails in the US has skyrocketed in recent decades. Here are some key stats:

  • In 1980, federal, state and local governments spent $17 billion on corrections (in 2017 dollars).
  • By 2017, that number had jumped to $80 billion.
  • States account for the bulk of spending – $56 billion in 2017. The federal government spent $9.3 billion on prisons in 2017.
  • Jails accounted for 10% of corrections spending in 2017. The rest when to fund state and federal prisons.

Several factors have driven the rapid increase:

  • Prison populations have quadrupled since 1980 as a result of stricter sentencing laws. This means more facilities and staff are needed to house all the inmates.
  • The costs per inmate have also grown due to increased staffing, healthcare spending and enhanced facilities and programs.
  • States are spending 3 times more on prisons today than in the late 1980s. Their corrections budgets now eat up about 7% of overall spending.

Spending varies across states based on the number of inmates and approach to corrections:

  • New York spent around $69,000 per inmate in 2015 – the highest rate in the US and nearly double the national average.
  • Louisiana had the highest imprisonment rate and spent $625 million on corrections in 2017.
  • California spends the most overall with over $10 billion going to prisons and jails annually.

The evidence shows incarceration takes up a significant slice of federal and state expenditure. Next we’ll break down exactly where our taxes are being allocated.

Federal Spending on Prisons

The federal government is responsible for funding federal prisons run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), along with immigration detention centers. Let’s look at how much taxpayer money goes to fund the BOP’s facilities and operations annually:

  • The BOP’s budget grew from around $3.5 billion in 2000 to over $7.8 billion by 2017.
  • This reflects the growth of the federal prison population from around 145,000 in 2000 to over 185,000 by 2017.
  • The BOP budget accounts for around 25% of the total Justice Department budget.
  • Per inmate costs in federal prisons are around $36,000 a year. High security facilities can cost over $40,000 per inmate annually.

Around $2.5 billion goes towards imprisoning immigrants in detention centers operated by agencies like ICE:

  • There was a surge in immigrant detention spending from $700 million in 2005 to over $2 billion by 2012.
  • Approximately 400,000 immigrants pass through these detention centers each year. It costs around $134 per person per day.
  • Private prison companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup operate many of these facilities via contracts with the government.

So around $10 billion of federal tax dollars went to locking up citizens and immigrants in 2017 – the result of policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and increased resources at the border.

How States Spend on Corrections

States collectively spend over $50 billion per year on their prison systems. Here is a sample of different states and how they allocate funding:

California

With its massive prison population, California spends far more than any other state:

  • Around $10 billion goes to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation annually.
  • Nearly 115,000 inmates are housed in the state’s 35 prisons.
  • California has one of the highest average costs at nearly $75,000 per prisoner.
  • About 9% of the state’s general fund budget goes to prisons.
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Texas

While Texas has a high prison population, it has lower average costs than California:

  • Texas spends over $3.7 billion on state prisons each year.
  • The state has around 140,000 inmates in a sprawling system of 100+ facilities.
  • On average Texas spends $22,000 per inmate for prison operation costs.
  • Around 3% of the state’s budget goes to corrections.

New York

Prisons take up a significant part of New York’s budget:

  • Over $3 billion a year is budgeted for the state’s prisons and jails.
  • There are around 47,000 inmates in New York’s 68 facilities.
  • With high employee wages and healthcare costs, the state spends around $69,000 per prisoner.
  • Prisons take up about 4% of the state’s general fund.

Alaska

Alaska is a prime example of how even small prison populations can impose major costs:

  • Alaska prisons cost the state over $260 million in 2017.
  • There are a little over 4,000 inmates in Alaska’s system.
  • But due to remote facilities and high transportation costs for goods, Alaska spends around $66,000 per inmate per year.

The sample demonstrates how corrections competes for limited state dollars for education, healthcare and other services. The costs even in low population states highlight the major taxpayer commitment required to sustain incarceration.

Where Exactly Do Our Tax Dollars Go?

Incarceration costs can be broken down into three main categories: personnel, healthcare and operations. Here is a breakdown of spending across federal, state and local facilities:

Personnel

Staffing prisons is expensive, especially in areas with unionized corrections officers. Key stats:

  • Around 65% of state prison expenditures and 75% in jails go towards pay and benefits for corrections officers and other staff.
  • California spends around $58,000 annually on wages and overtime per uniformed corrections officer.
  • New York corrections officers can make over $100,000 annually with overtime.
  • Average wages are around $45,000 but rise to $60-70,000 for veteran officers in some states.

With prisons open 24/7, large numbers of staff are needed to maintain custody and control. Most facilities are chronically understaffed, so overtime costs drain budgets. The difficult job also often comes with generous healthcare and pension benefits. All told, personnel absorbs the majority of facility budgets.

Healthcare

Incarcerated populations have high rates of chronic and infectious illnesses that are expensive to treat:

  • Around 20% of state prison budgets go towards inmate healthcare and the costs are rapidly rising.
  • States spend from between $5,000 to over $20,000 annually per inmate for medical services.
  • Prison healthcare costs grew from $6.5 billion in 2000 to over $12 billion by 2017.
  • Many seriously ill and aging inmates require round-the-clock nursing and frequent ER visits.
  • Expensive prescription drugs, such as for hepatitis C, drain budgets. Approximately 17% of the prison population lives with hepatitis.

The mentally ill now make up a large percentage of inmates. Their care contributes greatly to healthcare spending:

  • By some estimates, around 56% of state prisoners experience some form of mental illness.
  • Prison psychiatric hospitalization costs can be around $30,000 per inmate annually.
  • States spend over $2 billion just on psychotropic drugs for prisoners per year.

Incarcerated populations have high rates of chronic and infectious illnesses that are expensive to treat:

  • Around 20% of state prison budgets go towards inmate healthcare and the costs are rapidly rising.
  • States spend from between $5,000 to over $20,000 annually per inmate for medical services.
  • Prison healthcare costs grew from $6.5 billion in 2000 to over $12 billion by 2017.
  • Many seriously ill and aging inmates require round-the-clock nursing and frequent ER visits.
  • Expensive prescription drugs, such as for hepatitis C, drain budgets. Approximately 17% of the prison population lives with hepatitis.

The mentally ill now make up a large percentage of inmates. Their care contributes greatly to healthcare spending:

  • By some estimates, around 56% of state prisoners experience some form of mental illness.
  • Prison psychiatric hospitalization costs can be around $30,000 per inmate annually.
  • States spend over $2 billion just on psychotropic drugs for prisoners per year.

Operations

The basic operation of facilities make up around 15 – 20% of prison and jail budgets:

  • Food costs average around $2 to $3 per prisoner daily, adding up to between $500 to $800 per inmate annually.
  • Utility bills such as water, gas and electricity tally up quickly for large complexes.
  • Prison facilities require regular maintenance, repairs and upgrades.
  • Supplies, clothing, transportation and equipment expenses drain budgets.
  • Telephone calls and commissary offerings provide revenues but still cost money to administer.
  • Security expenses like weapons, body armor gear and surveillance also factor in.
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While smaller than payroll and benefits, operating costs remain a major line item in corrections spending.

Prison Staff Compensation Breakdown

Prison staff compensation makes up the majority of facility budgets. Here we break down the costs to employ different types of corrections personnel:

Corrections Officers

  • Average Annual Salary: $45,670
  • Overtime Pay: up to $13,000
  • Total Compensation: around $58,000
  • Benefits: health insurance – $6,000, pension contribution – $5,000, paid sick/vacation days

Supervisory Staff

  • Average Annual Salary: $69,600
  • Overtime Pay: up to $10,000
  • Total Compensation: around $85,000
  • Benefits: health insurance – $6,000, pension contribution – $7,000, more paid days off

Medical Staff

  • Average Annual Salary:
    • Psychiatrist: $269,000
    • Physician: $202,000
    • RN: $70,000
    • LPN: $48,000
  • Overtime Pay: up to $8,000
  • Benefits: health insurance, medical license funding, special leave

Other Staff

  • Corrections counselor: $51,100
  • Case manager: $39,600
  • Janitorial: $29,000
  • Food service: $22,000
  • Administration: $59,000

Salaries make up just half of total compensation. Generous overtime, healthcare, pensions and other benefits increase costs substantially. With chronic understaffing, overtime even further inflates budgets. The level of spending on compensation reduces funds available for rehabilitation and training programs.

The Costs of Youth Incarceration

Around 43,000 juveniles are held in juvenile facilities in the US. Here is a look at how much we spend to lock up minors:

  • States spend approximately $5.7 billion annually on juvenile facilities.
  • It costs $400 – $500 per day to house a juvenile, up to $200,000 per year.
  • Smaller facilities and greater educational requirements increase costs compared to adult prisons.
  • The average annual cost per juvenile nationwide is around $148,000.
  • Community-based alternatives such as probation cost 1/10 as much as incarceration.

While juvenile crime is down, taxpayers still bear major costs for confinement. Further investment in diversion initiatives could lower incarceration expenses and improve youth outcomes.

Comparing Spending on Prisons vs. Education

Critics argue that excessive corrections spending diverts funds away from more productive investments like education. Here is a state-by-state analysis:

California

  • Since the late 1970s, spending on prisons has grown twice as fast as education spending per pupil.
  • The state now spends around $65,000 per inmate compared to $10,700 per public school student.
  • California devotes nearly $2 billion more of the budget to prisons than universities.

Pennsylvania

  • Annual prison costs grew from $35,000 to $42,000 per inmate from 2008 to 2017 while education funding declined.
  • The state now spends about $3,100 per prisoner for every $1 it spends per public school pupil.

New York

  • New York spends nearly 2 times as much per prisoner as per public school student.
  • CUNY estimates lowering New York’s prison population by 50% could save $1.5 billion annually, more than enough to make CUNY tuition-free.

While states have increased education spending in recent years, many still allocate more funds to incarceration. Critics argue this aligns with misplaced priorities that favor punishment over opportunity and rehabilitation.

How Else Could Our Taxes Be Spent?

With billions spent on incarceration each year, reducing prison populations could potentially save substantial taxpayer funds. Here is what some of those tax dollars could be spent on instead:

  • Infrastructure: The American Society of Civil Engineers gives US infrastructure a D+ grade and estimates $2 trillion is needed upgrade roads, bridges, dams, airports and utilities. Diverting funds from prisons could help close this infrastructure investment gap.
  • Education: Public K-12 school spending lags behind other developed nations. The US spends around $12,800 per pupil compared to over $20,000 in countries like Switzerland and Norway. Reducing incarceration costs would allow more investment in improving education access and outcomes.
  • Mental health/rehab services: With a large number of inmates suffering from addiction and mental illness, increased spending on treatment and rehabilitation in communities could lower incarceration and recidivism rates. Diverting prison dollars to fund these programs could deliver better results.
  • Tax relief: Cutting incarceration expenditures could allow tax cuts or avoidance of tax hikes. States could use prison savings to cut property taxes or state income taxes to benefit working families.
  • Deficit reduction: At the federal level, reducing prison outlays could help lower budget deficits. The savings could also be redirected towards deficit-neutral investments in infrastructure, clean energy, etc.
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While prisons will always impose substantial taxpayer costs, spending could likely be cut and redirected to more productive uses without compromising public safety. The billions spent annually on incarceration require an ongoing cost-benefit analysis by policymakers and the public.

Key Facts and Figures

Federal spending on incarceration:

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons budget in 2017: $7.8 billion
  • Average cost per federal inmate: $36,000 a year
  • Number of federal inmates in 2017: over 185,000

State spending on incarceration:

  • Total state spending on prisons: $56 billion a year
  • Average cost per state prisoner: $33,274 a year
  • Total state prison population: over 1.3 million

Private prisons:

  • Around 8% of state prisoners are in private prisons
  • Private facilities have an average cost savings of 1.4% compared to public prisons.

Prison healthcare:

  • Approximately 20% of state prison budgets go to inmate healthcare
  • States spend between $5,000 to over $20,000 per inmate annually on healthcare
  • Over 50% of inmates have a chronic medical condition requiring treatment

Mental illness:

  • Estimated 56% of state prisoners experience some form of mental illness
  • Inmate psychiatric hospitalization can cost around $30,000 annually

Juvenile incarceration:

  • States spend around $5.7 billion per year on juvenile facilities
  • The average annual cost for one juvenile is $148,000

Recidivism impacts costs:

  • Around 68% of released prisoners are rearrested within 3 years
  • About 50% return to prison after release for either parole violations or new crimes

Reducing recidivism rates through education, job training, mental health treatment and reentry programs could significantly lower incarceration costs in the long-run.

Conclusion

Incarceration imposes major costs on taxpayers. While federal and state governments have increased spending on prisons to historic highs, the impact on public safety is debatable. Over $80 billion is now spent annually on corrections nationwide.

Personnel costs including benefits and overtime for guards eat up around 65% – 75% of facility budgets. Inmate healthcare drives up per prisoner costs, with mental health treatment alone costing billions each year. Even while supporting millions behind bars, most prisons remain understaffed and overcrowded.

Meanwhile, the funds going to incarceration divert resources from competing priorities like education, infrastructure and social services. The billions absorbed by prisons and jails require taxpayers, policymakers and the justice system to continually assess this spending versus investments in crime prevention, rehabilitation and community well-being. Updating sentencing laws, right-sizing prison populations, and funding programs to reduce recidivism could potentially lower costs while maintaining public safety.

How much of our taxes goes to locking up fellow citizens is a question we must continue to re-examine in pursuit of the best possible returns on our public investments.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to keep someone in prison for a year?

The average cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year is around $33,000 in state prisons and $36,000 in federal prisons. However, costs range from $15,000 – $60,000 depending on the state and the level of security. The highest annual cost per state prisoner is in New York at around $69,000.

Do private prisons save money?

Studies show private prisons save about 1-3% on average annual costs compared to public prisons. The major private prison companies claim they can save states up to 10%. However, cost savings often come at the expense of lower wages, fewer programs, and reduced medical care for inmates.

What percentage of the US federal budget goes to prisons?

Around 6.4% of the total federal Justice Department budget goes to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The total federal prison budget is around $7.8 billion annually out of around $68 billion for the Justice Department.

How much do prisons contribute to the economy?

While prisons do provide some employment, studies show that spending the same amounts on education would create many more jobs. One study found that spending on incarceration versus education costs 3 million lost job opportunities annually. Money spent on prisons yields relatively few economic benefits compared to human capital investments.

Prison Inside Team

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About us

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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