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Why Do Prisons Cost So Much? Examining Key Factors Behind

The cost of maintaining prison systems in the United States has skyrocketed in recent decades. While crime rates have fallen substantially since the early 1990s, incarceration rates and corrections spending continue to climb. State and federal prisons now cost taxpayers over $80 billion per year, diverting funds from other critical areas like education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Understanding the key drivers behind the rising cost of prisons is essential for policymakers seeking reforms that are both fiscally responsible and socially just. This article will examine factors like mandatory minimum sentencing, the war on drugs, prison privatization, healthcare and aging inmate populations that substantially impact incarceration expenditures.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws Drive Up Prison Populations and Costs

One of the most significant contributors to increased prison budgets since the 1980s has been mandatory minimum sentencing for drug and other nonviolent offenses. These laws require rigid prison terms of typically 5, 10 or 20 years for transgressions ranging from possession of illegal substances to repeat petty theft.

Judges are stripped of discretion to consider mitigating factors like addiction, mental illness or prior victimization when sentencing those convicted under mandatory minimum statutes. The practice has directly spiked incarceration rates and lengths of stay in prison for those affected.

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Critics argue these blanket sentencing policies are ineffective deterrents, overly punitive and disproportionately affect minorities and low-income communities. Efforts are underway in Congress and some states to reform mandatory minimums, curb their fiscal and social impacts, and allow for greater judicial discretion.

The War on Drugs Has Dramatically Increased Prison Populations

The prosecution of the war on drugs since the 1970s has also substantially driven up incarceration rates and budgets. Strict policing of drug crimes led to a ten-fold increase in the number of Americans in prisons for these offenses between 1980 and 2019.

The number of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug charges grew from approximately 40,700 to over 430,000 during this period, despite illegal drug use rates remaining largely stable. Tougher sentencing like mandatory minimums for drug offenses helped swell prison populations.

Experts estimate around 20% of the total state prisons budget is now spent on detaining those convicted of drug crimes. Some analysts project nationwide drug decriminalization could eventually reduce corrections expenditures by $7.7 to $12.3 billion per year.

Privatizing Prisons Has Not Delivered Adequate Savings or Performance

Another trend that has failed to curb costs as intended is the privatization of prisons beginning in the 1980s. Private prisons are now a $5 billion industry, housing over 120,000 inmates in 27 states. Major companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group operate these facilities under contracts with states.

Private operators promised substantially lower costs than government-run prisons by reducing payrolls, benefits and training expenses. However, research shows savings failed to materialize. A 2016 Department of Justice report found private prisons had significantly higher rates of safety and security problems than public ones.

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Despite minimal benefits, private prison contracts are still being granted, illustrating the power of lobbying efforts. But shifting attitudes on mass incarceration have led some jurisdictions to cease renewals with private corrections firms. Illinois, New York and Nevada all passed laws banning private prison contracting in recent years.

Healthcare Drives Up Prison Expenditures, Especially With Aging Inmate Populations

Another emerging cost factor for prisons is providing healthcare for inmates. A significant portion of America’s prison population struggles with chronic health conditions, mental illness and addiction issues that are expensive to treat long-term.

The sickest inmates can cost hundreds of thousands per year for care like dialysis, cancer treatment or motorized wheelchairs. A Pew study found prison healthcare spending increased 18% from 2010 to 2015, more than double the increase in total state corrections costs.

Aging baby boomer inmate populations are also hitting prisons hard. Elderly prisoners cost approximately $70,000 per year compared to $30,000 for younger ones, as they require assisted living, frequent hospital visits and end-of-life hospice care. Releasing more elderly non-violent prisoners could potentially curb prison healthcare outlays significantly.

Recommendations for Reducing Prison Costs While Upholding Justice and Safety

There are measures experts propose could materially lower mass incarceration costs without compromising public safety and justice. First, replacing rigid mandatory minimum sentences with more flexible guidelines giving judges discretion over punishments better balances sentencing goals.

Second, decriminalizing personal drug use while ramping up diversion programs provides a public health-focused approach less costly than incarceration. Finally, allowing non-violent elderly prisoners to finish sentences under community supervision cuts unnecessary healthcare expenses.

Smart reforms rethinking incarceration approaches for lower-risk populations can help control prison costs while maintaining facilities for dangerous offenders. However, meaningful change requires sustained public demand and political will to override influential tough-on-crime and prison privatization lobbies.

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Related Questions

What are the alternatives to prison that cost less?

Some criminal justice reforms that cost less than incarceration include expanded probation, restitution programs, community service, fines, drug courts, electronic monitoring and halfway houses. Investing more in helping offenders reintegrate into society can also reduce re-offending and future imprisonment costs.

Do private prisons really save money?

Despite claims of major cost savings, research shows most prison privatization contracts have not delivered substantially lower costs than public facilities. Private prisons often reduce expenses by paying lower wages and benefits, which leads to higher staff turnover and lower performance. Profits are prioritized over rehabilitation efforts.

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

The average cost to house an inmate in a state prison for one year is around $33,000. Federal prisons spend closer to $37,000 per inmate annually. Costs in high population states like California and New York approach $60,000 to $75,000 yearly per prisoner. Expenses cover housing, food, medical care, correctional officers and rehabilitation programs.


While falling crime rates are positive news, mass incarceration remains a complex problem in America. Inflexible sentencing laws, focus on drug criminalization and privatized prisons drive high costs without effectively improving public safety. Smart reforms addressing the unique needs of non-violent and elderly prisoner populations could potentially yield major savings. But meaningful change will require sustained public demand and political courage to implement socially just policies benefiting all communities.

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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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