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The Average Cost to House Inmates in Prison

Updated on June 28, 2012
krsharp05 profile image

Kristi spent two years working in the Scared Straight program at Lansing Penitentiary. AKA: J.A.I.L. (Juvenile Assistance Intake Liaison)

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary | Source

Imprisoned in the USA

It comes with no great shock that the United States has the highest incarceration rate amongst the affluent members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the entire world. Of the top thirty countries, the US towers above the other countries by nearly 75% more convictions and incarcerations per 100,000 people. If you throw in the other members of the OECD, the non-affluent members, the US continues to out-rank all other countries. including those that have high rates of genocide.

In 2008, the United States spent nearly $75 billion on corrections; most of which went towards incarceration. It is estimated that about $16.9 billion might have been shaved off of the total if steps had been taken to reduce the number of non-violent offenders currently "doing time".

Jail VS Prison

In most of the 50 states, the difference between prison and jail is the length of a convicted person's sentence. If a convicted felon is sentenced to a year or more in lock down, they will go to prison. If they are sentenced to less than a year, they will typically go to jail. The exceptions to this standard are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont which all incorporate prison and jail together into one system.

Crunching Numbers

In 1960, 1 in every 153 men was incarcerated in the United States. By 2008, that number grew substantially to 1 in every 48 men. It is believed that stricter sentencing guidelines; the "tough on crime" approach was and remains the culprit for the steady rise in prison populations. Evidence to support this can be seen by the decline in both violent and property crimes and the continuous rise in inmate counts.

Why Are Prisons Overpopulated?

With new protocols such as mandatory minimums, three strikes and truth in sentencing, persons who would normally receive lighter sentences such as probation or community service are now being committed to jail or prison. Non-violent offenders now account for nearly 25% of all inmates. In 1980 that number was 10%.

Experts agree that the available evidence supports the opposition of warehousing non-violent offenders as a deterrent to criminal activity. While imprisonment might have a slightly negative impact, the cost to house inmates that could live successfully outside of prison walls.


How Many and How Much?

Today state penitentiaries give home to 60% of inmates and therefore assume the largest share of costs. Local domains account for 30% and federal inmates take up about 10%. It currently costs about $26,000 per year to keep an inmate locked down. It costs between $1,300-$2,800 per year to keep a sentenced person on probation or parole. If the United States took 50% of the non-violent offenders - people who are first time offenders and put them on probation or parole, it would mean a savings of about $16.9 billion dollars.

The United States prison population has grown by more than 350% since 1980. Unfortunately that tremendous growth is not succinct with population growth. Although legislatures are working to find alternatives to incarceration for the non-violent offenders and those who could potentially "do time" in community corrections programs, progress is slow. There is no statistical data that suggests or has proven that tougher sentencing guidelines and warehousing inmates are useful as preventative measures.


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    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      7 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      e-five, thank you for the excellent comment. Every time I see another show about prison, it seems that a southern state is spending several millions of dollars to build more institutions to house inmates like warehoused junk. Thank you for the link. I will definitely get informed. Thank you for reading. -K

    • e-five profile image

      John C Thomas 

      7 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

      I'm a bit surprised that you didn't mention the profit motive in putting people behind bars. The privatization of our corrections system (exemplified by for-profit private corporations like Corrections Corporation of America see ) have lobbied to extend and/or create harsher sentencing guidelines to ensure plenty of business and profit for their company.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      rfmoran, thank you for reading and commenting. Great example! The three strikes rule has been a furious culprit in the warehousing effect. Non-violent crimes aren't always "gateway" crimes. I appreciate your input. -K

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      8 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Very interesting Hub. Remember Leandro Andrade (Google him). He's the shoplifter who got hit with California's three-strikes sentencing law. He's serving three a 50 to life sentence and won't be eligible for parole until 2046—when he will be 87 years old. For shoplifting $150 in property.

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      ib radmasters, thank you for reading and replying. In many ways, I agree. The "justice system" is not functional in any way. The more I search for accurate and current data, the more I realize there isn't any. This is especially true for the juvenile justice system.

      After working in a prison for two years, actually it only took me about two hours, I realized that the lines between races were thick and tall. Gangs are what keep them alive. The motto being "put up a flag and look for common people". And you're exactly right when you say that they have just as much power inside the walls as they had on the streets.

      Thanks again. Great comment. -K

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      Great hub and great ideas.

      It sounds like the whole criminal justice and prison systems need to be changed, and still serve justice.

      It also seems that more crimes and laws are broken in prison than in the general public. Gang leaders in prison can still run their gangs that are on the outside.

      Anyway, the current system is not working on any level. The local jails are being overcrowded, at least in California.


    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      greatstuff, thank you for taking the time to read and reply. I appreciate your feedback. -K

    • greatstuff profile image


      8 years ago from Malaysia

      This is an interesting and well-researched article. Like your use of the word "warehousing non-violent offenders..' Most appropriate!

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      Awe, big brother! :)

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      8 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Now I'm blushing!

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      spartucus, thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I always appreciate hearing your view on my hubs. You've been an inspiration from day one. -K

    • krsharp05 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kristi Sharp 

      8 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

      billybuc, thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate you taking the time. Great to hear from you again. -K

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      8 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Well researched hub! Your arguments where logically developed. You make it clear that more efforts will need to be made to more adequately deal with non violent offenders.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating stuff here! You did a great job of researching and presenting the fact. The conclusions are undeniable.


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