Incarceration is part of the American identity. As Vice reported in 2014, with over 2.4 million people behind bars, one in every 100 U.S. citizens is serving time. According to a 2014 report by the Hamilton Project, the United States' world-leading incarceration rates make it “an international outlier” and the country spends over $80 billion annually on maintaining its growing prison population. Recent analysis of crime rates by New York Times Opinion contributors show this system fails cost-benefit analysis.
The cost of prisons expands into the larger economy. As highlighted in a U.S. News opinion piece, high prison costs mean states dedicate more funds to incarceration than to other budget items. The amount spent on prisoners tends to exceed the amount a state spends on education for each public school student, according to a CNN report.
The drain continues after a prison sentence — a Pew Research study found former inmates earn at least 40 percent less than those who were not incarcerated. While incarceration is a national political issue, the price varies for each state.
The team at InsideGov, a politics site that’s part of the Graphiq network, looked at the real cost of state-run and privately-operated prisons on a state-by-state basis. Taxpayer costs for 40 states were derived from the Vera Institute for Justice’s report on “The Price of Prisons.” The costs include payments to local jails, payments to other states for housing of state-sentenced inmates and expenses outside the corrections department budgets such as health care costs and employee benefits. The results represent 2010 figures and the average costs are based off the inflation-adjusted dollar amount in 2000.
Some limitations regarding the data from this report are that it is self-reported through surveys and only covers 40 states. Although the report was published in 2012 and reflects 2010 figures, it remains the most recent authoritative source for this incarceration information. Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming were not included because they either did not complete the survey or were unable to certify the data.
The following list of states is ranked by the average annual cost per inmate.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $35,950
Average Daily Inmate Population: 4,542
According to a Corrections Department report, almost half of the prisoners released from Nebraska prisons in 2015 did not leave with parole or further supervision.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $37,994
Average Daily Inmate Population: 23,015
Two state prisons in Wisconsin have reported issues with their water being contaminated with lead and copper.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $38,268
Average Daily Inmate Population: 45,551
During his first year in office, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner started an initiative in 2015 to reduce Illinois’ prison population by 25 percent by 2025.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $38,383
Average Daily Inmate Population: 21,786
Although Maryland expanded Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, former inmates struggle to enroll and many remain uncovered.
#11. North Dakota
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $39,271
Average Daily Inmate Population: 1,479
Drug offenders in North Dakota accounted for 40 percent of all felony sentencings in 2014, according to findings by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $41,364
Average Daily Inmate Population: 9,557
Since 2005, 11 inmates have escaped Minnesota prisons. They all were subsequently apprehended.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $42,339
Average Daily Inmate Population: 48,543
Pennsylvania prisons reformed their use of solitary confinement following an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $46,404
Average Daily Inmate Population: 2,167
Inmates at Maine State Prison have the opportunity to participate in a college program which is funded by the Sunshine Lady Foundation. According to Deborah Meehan, the director of the University of Maine’s University College at Rockland, inmates who participate in the program do not recidivate following their release.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $46,897
Average Daily Inmate Population: 17,050
The singer John Legendperformed at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in April 2016. He promoted criminal justice reform and said: “We need to focus more on fairness, compassion, mercy and restoring people so they can be whole and go back into the community and live productive, compassionate, healthy lives.”
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $47,421
Average Daily Inmate Population: 167,276
Some California inmates participate in a program that teaches firefighting skills. These low-level offenders earn $2 each day for their work as well as reduced sentences.
#5. Rhode Island
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $49,133
Average Daily Inmate Population: 3,502
In April 2016, Roberta Richman, a former Rhode Island prison warden, started advocating for a state bill that would reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $49,502
Average Daily Inmate Population: 2,248
Starting in 2015, Vermont inmates have access to kiosks that provide email and video visits or the option to purchase personal tablets. Al Cormier, the superintendent at Northeast Correctional Complex, is interested to see the impact of these electronic resources: “We’ll see if it reduces our recidivism, our violence in our facilities and reduce the flow of contraband coming into our facilities.”
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $50,262
Average Daily Inmate Population: 18,492
In order to help prisoners with drug addiction issues, Connecticut is expanding a methadone treatment program in its prisons.
#2. New Jersey
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $54,865
Average Daily Inmate Population: 25,822
The ACLU challenged New Jersey in June 2014 for sentencing minors to life without parole. This stemmed from the case of James Comer, who was sentenced at the age of 17 to 75 years in prison. With his eligibility for parole past the average lifespan, the ACLU claims Comer “effectively has been sentenced to die in prison.”
#1. New York
Average Annual Cost Per Inmate: $60,076
Average Daily Inmate Population: 59,237
Following a lawsuit by prisoners, New York began reforming the use of solitary confinement in 2016. The reforms include caps on time spent in solitary and alternative disciplinary programs.
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