How Much Do Prisons Cost Taxpayers?

Taxpayers help pay for inmate housing and medical care.

Almost one out of every 100 people in the U.S. is incarcerated, according to an estimate from the Prison Policy Initiative. In addition to raising questions about the equity and effectiveness of the justice system, the large prison population might make you wonder: Just how much do taxpayers pay for prisoners?

The amounts paid out by state and federal correction agencies regularly make headlines, but a lot of the costs of the prison system are actually borne by other agencies or departments. Here’s a rundown of the costs associated with prisons:


Cost of Incarceration in State Prisons: $43 Billion

According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, states do not pay the same amount for prison inmates in their prisons or jails. The institute surveyed spending by 45 states to determine the average expense per inmate per state in 2015.

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The amount budgeted by the states for their corrections departments totaled just under $43 billion.

Broken down by inmate, the average charge to taxpayers for each prison inmate in these state prisons was $33,274. Some states paid far more per prisoner and some paid less. The annual cost per inmate was highest in the state of New York at $69,355. Alabama paid the least at an average cost of $14,780 per inmate.

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Cost of Incarceration in Federal Prisons: $5.8 Billion

Although the total number of those in prison has dropped in recent years, there’s still a significant amount being spent on state and federal prisoners.

How much taxpayer money goes toward covering an average federal inmate? In 2018, the Bureau of Prisons reported that the average cost for a federal inmate was $36,299.25 per year, or $99.45 per day.

As of July 9, there are 159,692 federal inmates in total, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That makes for a total annual expense of nearly $5.8 billion per year.

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Cost of Guantanamo Bay: $540 Million

How much do private prisons cost taxpayers? A lot. There’s no way to tell how much money prisons make per inmate, though.

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As of September 2019, only 40 prisoners remained at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. The New York Times reported at the time that the prison was likely “the most expensive on earth.” The documented cost of running the Guantanamo Bay prison facility in 2018 was $540 million, according to a tally by the Times, but the actual prison costs have been labeled classified by security agencies.

This means that the cost per prisoner is about $13 million per year.

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Cost of Corrections Employee Benefits: $4.25 Billion

The Vera Institute found that payments for basic employment benefits like pensions and healthcare for corrections employees — including for retired employees — were some of the biggest prison costs footed by taxpayers outside the correction budget. That is, these costs are not generally included in the tax dollars allotted to correction departments in the states.

These were the pension and healthcare amounts the Vera Institute uncovered for the states involved in the study:

  • $1.9 billion: underfunded contributions for healthcare for retired corrections employees
  • $837 million: other contributions for healthcare for retired corrections employees
  • $613 million: other employee benefits, including health insurance for current employees
  • $598 million: pension contributions for corrections employees
  • $304 million: underfunded contributions for pensions for corrections employees

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Cost of Healthcare for Prison Inmates: $8.1 Billion

Healthcare costs for prison inmates are considerable. A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that state spending on prisoner healthcare totaled $8.1 billion nationwide in 2015, the most recent year statistics were available.

The amount varies significantly from state to state, with California spending $19,796 per inmate on healthcare and Louisiana spending $2,173 per inmate.

Prison inmates are more likely to have chronic diseases that are expensive to treat and can be transmitted to others, such as AIDS and hepatitis C. They also have more mental illness than people outside the prisons. Medical care for these conditions is costly.

Prisoners are often not eligible for public healthcare programs like Medicare, yet they have constitutional rights to medical care. That means that the states and the federal government must provide both medical facilities and treatment.

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Cost of Incarcerating Older Prison Inmates: $16 Billion

Prisoners over the age of 55 are considered “older inmates,” and their numbers have been increasing dramatically in the United States. From 1999 to 2016, the number of people 55 and older in state and federal prisons increased by 280%, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. By 2030, experts estimate that one-third of the prison population will be older inmates.

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Yet the costs to taxpayers of keeping older inmates in prison are much higher than for younger prison inmates. It can cost up to three times as much to house an aging prisoner as it would to incarcerate a younger prisoner.

Although healthcare and nursing-home-type care are often mentioned as the cause for these high costs, the additional expenses cannot be linked to any single factor. According to experts, the high costs result from the incarceration of inmates with different physical, medical and holistic requirements.

The cost to taxpayers of keeping older inmates in jail comes to some $16 billion annually.

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Cost of Solitary Confinement: $75,000 Per Inmate Annually

Solitary confinement is the practice of moving a prisoner away from the general cell block. Generally, these prisoners are isolated in closed cells without any significant human contact for periods ranging from days to years to even decades.

Solitary confinement can be used as a form of punishment or a way of protecting vulnerable prison inmates. Experts question the psychological effects of this practice, especially given that a large number of people with mental illnesses are put in solitary. But generally all agree that the costs to taxpayers of using solitary confinement in this country are very high.

Although state reporting is sporadic, Solitary Watch estimates that at least 80,000 are currently held in solitary confinement. Construction of solitary confinement units is costly, but housing prisoners in isolation is far more expensive. The average cost to taxpayers for each year a prisoner spends in solitary is $75,000.

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This article has been updated with additional reporting since its original publication.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler

Lawyer, writer and world traveler, Teo Spengler splits her home time between San Francisco and France. She has specialized in travel, legal and business writing for the past 15 years. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Fairmont Hotel Blog, Fairmont Moments, Houston Chronicle, Jet Blue.com, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Intercontinental Hotel Group, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites.

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