Paying a Steep Price: Additional Costs of Incarceration

By: Edovo Jan 08, 2019


Highlighting costs of legal fees, bail bonds, and loss of income that affect friends and family


$182 billion is a fantastical amount of money. It’s more than most lottery jackpots and more than anyone could ever hope to win in Las Vegas. It’s $68 billion dollars more than the net worth of the richest person in the world, and more than double the GDP of Cuba. It’s more than the United States spends every year on education ($70 billion), veterans’ benefits ($65 billion), and energy and environmental efforts ($40 billion) combined. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, it’s the amount the United States spends annually on mass incarceration.  


Mass incarceration has been a significant issue for the United States for decades, specifically since President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” of the 1970s. In a nation of nearly 330 million people, there are 2.3 million incarcerated (2018) compared to 200,000 in 1972. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration per capita in the world, marginally ahead of El Salvador and Turkmenistan. Even as a highly competitive nation, this is one contest we can’t afford to win.


According to the United States Bureau of Prisons’ 2018 “Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration,” the cost of a single Federal inmate is $34,704.12 annually or $94.82 per day. This value represents the average of how much each state spends to employee prison staff, maintain facilities, and provide basic prison services. Costs vary from state to state with Alabama having the lowest annual cost at $14,780, and New York taking its place at the opposite end of the spectrum with $69,355 per inmate. The cost of one person being incarcerated in New York for a year is -on average- the price of a sparkling new Jaguar XF.


Calculating the Costs


What exactly is this $182 billion being spent on every year? It’s difficult to determine since reports offer vastly different figures based on what data is included in the total expenditures.

For instance, The Vera Institute of Justice reported that 68% of each state prison’s spending was directed at employment, including salaries and benefits for prison staff. Considering how many roles need to be filled to run a state prison effectively, this should come as no surprise. The 2017 Prison Policy Initiative report “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” however, found that only half the cost of mass incarceration is spent on prison staffing and maintenance.

While both reports agree that more than half the expenses go to running the facilities, staffing, and providing basic needs for the incarcerated, the Prison Policy Initiative took into account additional costs that contribute to mass incarceration such as policing and bail bonds. By including those expensive factors, the report demonstrated that the usually overlooked costs of incarceration may be more significant and damaging than previously believed.


“Following the Money” also concluded that government-funded facilities pay over 100 times more than private prisons, despite the public’s overwhelming condemnation of privatized prisons. Beyond employment, providing food and health care for 2.3 million individuals is not cheap. For comparison, fifteen (15) individual states have a population of less than the United States’ prison population; West Virginia would be able to feed and provide healthcare for all of its residents and still have enough left over for Wyoming.  


 Prison Policy Initiative: Following the Money (2017).


The cost of incarceration is not an exact science. It changes from year to year, values sometimes need to be adjusted for inflation, and how researchers categorize expenses tends to vary greatly. The United States Bureau of Prisons focuses its cost estimate on running a prison facility, whereas Prison Policy Initiative includes other costs contributing to mass incarceration including: policing ($63.2 billion), judicial and legal expenses ($29 billion), and civil asset forfeiture ($4.5 billion). Civil asset forfeiture includes items seized in suspicion or connection to a crime, even when the owner has not been formally charged with breaking the law.


These numbers are difficult to track, and Prison Policy Initiative readily admits that the numbers are estimates based on available information. It is often difficult to separate criminal from civil expenses, and in some cases these figures are an understatement due to incomplete information. Because this report is one of the only recent, comprehensive looks into the cost of mass incarceration, it’s a startling window into the overwhelmingly high price of the United States’ prison system. If you’ve ever done holiday shopping or gone on a vacation without keeping track of spending, only to be floored by your credit card bill a month later, you might have a sense of how this feels to the average taxpayer.


Friends & Family Members Foot the Bill


The cost is even more complicated for the incarcerated and their loved ones, amounting to approximately $2.9 billion a year (plus $1.4 billion for bail fees). The graph below does not include the cost of privately-funded defense agencies and private counsel that is paid by charged individuals and their families. Bail fees account for $1.4 billion paid to bond collectors. Bail is a monetary agreement that an individual charged with a crime must pay as a guarantee he or she will attend future court proceedings. If the individual cannot come up with the payment, he or she will be incarcerated until the case is resolved or dismissed. In fact, 70% of those incarcerated in local jails are in pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime. 


Commissary accounts add up to $1.6 billion a year, with the average family paying approximately $700 a year on each incarcerated loved one. Commissaries are the “stores” within a prison or jail facility that allows the incarcerated to purchase snacks, postage stamps, and hygiene products. Since the incarcerated are typically not allowed to have money on hand, they use prepaid cards that are usually funded by family and friends outside of the facility. Considering inmate wages average only 93 cents per day, it would take several days to be able to purchase a single pack of instant noodles on their own. Private companies provide commissary services to most facilities with a commission percentage usually going to the facility itself. 


Who Pays? Report: The True Cost of Incarceration on Families (2015).


For many incarcerated individuals, communicating with loved ones is an important connection to the outside world, providing consistent support and updates from family and friends. However, it’s rarely affordable with some companies charging “up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.” Among the families surveyed, the most significant deterrence to staying connected with an incarcerated loved one was the monetary cost of phone calls and visitation. More than a third of the survey participants went into debt in an effort to pay off the expenses associated with communicating. On average, loved ones spend $1.3 billion a year on communication services. Edovo is working to lower rates and help eliminate commission fees in order to make communication less of a financial burden, but it is an uphill battle against an industry driven by revenue.


Beyond Dollar Signs


The monetary cost is only part of the effect on those incarcerated and their loved ones. Once released, individuals have a difficult time finding jobs and face lower wages. 48% of families surveyed were unable to pay for the financial burden of a conviction. Due to the stigma of an arrest or conviction record and insufficient training or education, many formerly incarcerated individuals have trouble finding a job upon release – in fact, 67% surveyed were still unemployed or underemployed after five years of being released. 65% of families were unable to meet their family’s basic needs -such as rent, food, and utility costs- and 70% of those families had children under the age of eighteen in their care. One in five families were forced to take out loans in order to cover the costs of court fees and the other associated expenses of having a loved one incarcerated. These additional costs of incarceration can be crippling for a large portion of the population and further suppress already socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. 


Not only are the 2.3 million incarcerated individuals affected by the mass incarceration epidemic in the United States, countless tax-paying members of the community and financially and emotionally burdened family members must suffer the weight of an expensive and inefficient system. High rates of recidivism mean that the prison system is not deterring crime or supporting rehabilitation successfully. As Prison Policy Initiative eloquently puts it: “If we are to make our society safer and stronger, we’ll need to be making far smarter investments than we are today.”


Edovo is focused on finding new ways to use technology to promote the health, education, and rehabilitation of the incarcerated population while also improving the safety and security of our prison and jail facilities. Digital education and affordable communication options provide unique opportunities to better prepare our incarcerated population for release and reduce financial burdens on loved ones and taxpayers. As a nation, we must make the effort to be more efficient in our management of criminal justice, and increase rehabilitation opportunities for the incarcerated - there are more than 2.3 million reasons to strive for change.