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The Price of Prisons, Vera Institute of Justice, 2017

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May 2017

The Price of Prisons:
Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015
Chris Mai and Ram Subramanian

Research Director’s Note
In 2012, Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections
published The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs
Taxpayers, to answer a simple, yet important, question:
what is the cost of prison? This report provided critical
information, because budgetary considerations are
often central to public policy debate. But the landscape
of corrections has changed considerably in recent years.
After the collective state prison population peaked at
1,407,369 at the end of 2009, it has since declined by 5
percent. While this may not seem like a lot in relative
terms, it amounts to more than 77,000 fewer people
in prison — a number that exceeds the average daily
population of the prison systems in New York (53,181),
Georgia (46,145), and Ohio (50,452).
So this begs a new question: if prison populations are
falling, are states consequently saving any money? It
turns out that many are. Vera researchers found that
while states have confronted rising costs for employee
salaries and benefits, total prison costs declined by $232
million nationwide, which largely can be attributed to
smaller prison populations.
Despite this aggregate trend, however, there is wide
variation among states in both prison population and
spending. In 2015, out of the 45 states who completed
Vera’s survey, 20 spent less on prisons than in 2010, but

in the 25 other states spending increased. This was a
result of higher prison populations in 15 states and an
increase in spending — in many states — for expenses
such as staffing costs and prison health care.
Although rising pension costs and political resistance
to prison closures in some states prevented savings
even when correctional populations declined, more
than half of states with declining prison populations
are making good on the promise of smaller prison
budgets as well. Since 2010, 23 states have reduced
the size of their prison populations. Vera’s research
found that 13 of these states have saved considerably
in taxpayer money — $1.6 billion — at the same time.
While simultaneously downsizing prison populations
and spending is easier said than done, these 13 states
prove that it is indeed possible. For those who are up to
the challenge, this report makes it plain that a large sum
of money is on the table.

Christian Henrichson, Research Director

Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Vera Institute of Justice

Contents
4	

Introduction

6	

Methodology

7	

Prison spending in 2015

		
10 	

Employment is the primary driver of prison spending

Trends in prison population and spending: 2010 – 2015

		

How states saved money in prison spending

		

Why some states’ spending increased

21 	

Conclusion

22 	 Appendix
23 	 Endnotes

Introduction

A

fter decades of a stable rate of incarceration, the U.S. prison
population experienced unprecedented growth from the early 1970s
into the new millennium — with the number of people confined to
state prisons increasing by more than 600 percent, reaching just over 1.4
million people by the end of 2009.1 The engine driving this growth was
the enactment and implementation over time of a broad array of toughon-crime policies, including the rapid and continuous expansion of the
criminal code; the adoption of zero-tolerance policing tactics, particularly
around minor street-level drug and quality-of-life offenses; and the
proliferation of harsh sentencing and release policies aimed at keeping
people in prison for longer periods of time (such as mandatory minimum
sentences, truth-in-sentencing statutes, and habitual offender laws).2
Unsurprisingly, this explosion in the use of incarceration had a direct
financial influence on state budgets. Creating and sustaining such a
sprawling penal system has been expensive. With more people under their
care, state prison systems were compelled to build new prison facilities
and expand existing ones.3 To staff these new and expanded facilities,
they also had to hire, train, and retain ever more employees.4 In addition
to expanding the state-operated prison system, some states also began
to board out increasing numbers of people to county jails, privately-run
facilities, and other states’ prison systems.5
After hitting a high of 1.4 million people in 2009, however, the
overall state prison population has since declined by 5 percent, or 77,000
people.6 Lawmakers in nearly every state and from across the political
spectrum — some prompted by the 2008 recession — have enacted
new laws to reduce prison populations and spending, often guided by
a now‑large body of research supporting alternative, more effective
responses to crime.7 In addition to fiscal pressures, the push for reform
has been further bolstered by other factors, including low crime rates;

shifting public opinion that now favors less incarceration and more
rehabilitation; and dissatisfaction with past punitive policies that have

4

Vera Institute of Justice

failed to moderate persistently high recidivism rates among those sent to
prison.8
With these various political, institutional, and economic forces at play,
most states have adopted a variety of different policies, including those that
increase opportunities to divert people away from the traditional criminal
justice process; expand the use of community-based sanctions; reduce
the length and severity of prison sentences for certain offenses, including
the rollback of mandatory penalties; increase opportunities for people to
gain early release; and better provide enhanced reentry support for those
leaving prison or jail.9
In light of nearly a decade of broad-based criminal justice reform, this
report seeks to determine where state prison spending stands today and
how it has changed in recent years. In particular, if a goal of recent reforms
has been to make deep and lasting cuts to prison spending by reducing the
prison population, have states who have witnessed the desired downward
shift in prison size also witnessed it in spending? To answer this question,
researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed a survey to
measure changes in state prison population and expenditures between
2010 and 2015, and conducted follow-up interviews with state prison
budget officials to better understand spending and population trends.
Vera’s study confirms that prisons remain an expensive enterprise,
despite the success of many states — including Michigan, New Jersey,
New York, and South Carolina — in simultaneously reducing their
prison populations while achieving budget savings. The first part of this
report describes 2015 prison expenditures, identifying the main driver
of corrections spending across responding states. The second half of the
report then discusses how changes in prison populations during the study
period, and other trends largely outside the control of departments of
corrections have affected prison spending. What is clear is that increased
spending is not inevitable, since nearly half of states have cut their
spending on prisons between 2010 and 2015. But while one might expect
that states with shrinking prison populations are uniformly spending
less on prisons, or conversely that states with growing populations are
spending more, Vera’s findings paint a more complicated picture. Indeed,
often there is no single reason that explains a rise or fall in spending, but a
multitude of factors that push and pull expenditures in different directions.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

5

Methodology

I

n spring of 2016, Vera designed a survey of state prison expenditures
that was modeled on the 2012 Price of Prisons survey. (Unlike the 2012
survey, this new survey did not collect data to estimate the future cost
of underfunded liabilities to employee retirement programs, because the
research objective was to measure how states have changed what they
spend on prison each year.)
The 2016 survey was pre-tested in three states and collected data on the
number of prison facilities, prison employees, incarcerated people under
state jurisdiction, and prison expenditures both paid for by the department
of corrections and paid for by other state agencies in fiscal years 2000,
2005, 2010, and 2015, including expenditures funded by all revenue
sources.10 This survey was distributed to every state’s department of
corrections in May 2016. Corrections departments in 45 states completed
and returned the survey. Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire,
and Wyoming did not complete a survey. Vera’s analysis focuses on 2010
and 2015 because many states could not provide comprehensive and
comparable data for the years 2000 and 2005. Vera also conducted followup interviews with state prison budget officials in over half of the surveyed
states to better understand state spending and population trends.
All tables in this report are adjusted to fiscal year 2015 dollars using the
Bureau of Economic Analysis’ price deflator for gross domestic product.11

Costs in context: Vera research on prison and jail costs
Previous Vera reports have examined prison and jail spending.
Realigning Justice Resources, published in 2012 during the
recovery to the Great Recession, compared spending and
population size in state prisons and community corrections
between 2006 and 2010, finding that there is not always a
clear relationship between population and spending shifts
from one part of a state’s criminal justice system to another.
Vera’s The Price of Prisons, also published in 2012, sought to
uncover the “true” cost of prisons, including state spending

6

Vera Institute of Justice

on prisons from state agencies other than the department of
corrections. That report found that those costs are usually
undercounted in official reports and are often substantial.
Vera’s Price of Jails, published in 2015, had similar findings
regarding spending at the local level. This report builds
on Vera’s prior efforts to evaluate trends in state prison
expenditures and in particular to uncover what has changed
since 2010.

Prison spending in 2015

B

ecause prisons are institutions where all aspects of life are
conducted and administered, they must provide everything deemed
necessary for those who are confined there — some for very long
periods of time.12 This, as Vera’s survey results confirm, is an expensive
endeavor. Prisons must at all times provide: adequate levels of security;
program and administrative staff to run facilities and both supervise and
provide services for incarcerated persons; food and programming for the
people under their care, including sufficient recreational and educational
opportunities; infrastructure maintenance and upkeep, including electricity
and other operational costs; and, increasingly, higher levels of specialized
health care for a growing population with significant levels of physical and
mental health concerns. In 2015, among the 45 responding states, the total
state expenditure on prisons was just under $43 billion. Because the size
of states and state prison systems vary widely, there is likewise variation
between each states’ total prison costs, ranging from $65 million in North
Dakota, to more than $8 billion (a fifth of the total prison spending in the
United States) in California — the largest state prison system in the country
(see Table 1).
A common measure used by states to understand this cost is the
“average cost per inmate,” calculated by taking the total state spending
on prisons and dividing it by the average daily prison population.13 This
figure represents the amount the state spends annually, on average, to staff
and maintain the prisons and provide all prison services. Among the 45
states that provided data (representing 1.29 million of the 1.33 million total
people incarcerated in all 50 state prison systems), the total cost per inmate
averaged $33,274 and ranged from a low of $14,780 in Alabama to a high
of $69,355 in New York. Eight states — Alaska, California, Connecticut,
Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont — had
a cost per inmate above $50,000.14 Eighteen, mostly southern, states had
costs less than $25,000, while 19 states had costs between $25,000 and
$50,000 (see Table 1).

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

7

Table 1

State prison cost per inmate, 2015

Alabama

Average cost

Prison population

Prison expenditures

31,563

$466,488,094

$14,780

per inmate

Alaska

6,010

$316,323,123

$52,633

Arizona

42,131

$1,069,998,638

$25,397

Arkansas

17,785

$371,968,841

$20,915

California

132,992

$8,596,902,049

$64,642

Colorado

18,054

$709,581,867

$39,303

Connecticut

16,347

$1,016,118,399

$62,159

Delaware

6,814

$266,293,532

$39,080

Florida

100,567

$1,917,735,951

$19,069

Georgia

$19,977

46,145

$921,844,210

Hawaii

6,063

$178,406,163

$29,425

Idaho

8,120

$180,115,744

$22,182

Illinois

47,622

$1,595,647,075

$33,507

Indiana

$18,065

28,656

$517,678,909

Iowa

8,195

$310,634,762

$37,908

Kansas

9,697

$237,682,123

$24,511

Kentucky

21,062

$351,336,792

$16,681

Louisiana

38,296

$622,350,856

$16,251

Maryland

24,028

$1,071,682,231

$44,601

Massachusetts

10,772

$594,295,857

$55,170

Michigan

43,375

$1,553,213,339

$35,809

Minnesota

9,760

$403,729,705

$41,366

Missouri

32,284

$716,287,058

$22,187

Montana

2,833

$95,125,223

$33,578

Nevada

13,665

$243,935,441

$17,851

New Jersey

21,992

$1,354,767,292

$61,603

New Mexico

7,167

$263,976,999

$36,832

New York

53,181

$3,688,356,319

$69,355

North Carolina

37,066

$1,118,669,204

$30,180

North Dakota

1,696

$65,467,993

$38,601

Ohio

50,452

$1,337,453,060

$26,509

Oklahoma

27,369

$451,501,686

$16,497

Oregon

14,538

$639,974,399

$44,021

Pennsylvania

50,366

$2,151,980,000

$42,727

Rhode Island

3,182

$186,349,078

$58,564

21,773

$436,615,085

$20,053

3,524

$73,122,593

$20,748

South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee

30,837

$723,680,760

$23,468

149,159

$3,283,213,997

$22,012

Utah

6,907

$152,778,962

$22,119

Vermont

2,026

$116,727,820

$57,615

Virginia

38,688

$824,010,613

$21,299

Washington

16,716

$632,557,822

$37,841

and prisons are operated by the state rather than

6,882

$188,966,523

$27,458

the county and state jurisdictions, respectively. The

22,461

$867,991,403

$38,644

 

 

 

1,288,818

$42,883,537,590

$33,274

Texas

West Virginia
Wisconsin
 
TOTAL (45 states)

8

Vera Institute of Justice

Source: Vera survey of state prison expenditures
Note: The corrections systems in Alaska,
Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and
Vermont have a unified structure, meaning that jails

figures provided by these states include people in
both sentenced and accused status, meaning that
they include the cost of pretrial detention.

Employment is the primary driver of
prison spending
While state-to-state comparisons of average cost per inmate can be
a tempting way for policymakers and the public to make conclusions
on whether money is being spent wisely, such comparisons should be
done with some caution. First, per-inmate costs do not measure the
effectiveness of spending; they merely tally spending itself. Second, states’
per-inmate costs can be reduced by increasing the number of people held
in the prison, which can invite unsafe conditions. Third, costs vary across
states because of regional differences in wages.
One major finding in Vera’s analysis is that personnel costs — including
salaries, overtime, and benefits —comprised the lion’s share of state prison
expenditures, making up more than two-thirds (68 percent) of total
spending in 2015 (see the appendix).15 States with higher average salaries
for corrections employees — such as California and Connecticut — and
more employees relative to the size of the prison population (for example a
higher officer-to-inmate staffing ratio) — such as Massachusetts, New York,
and Rhode Island — will generally have higher per-inmate costs. Vera’s
calculation of personnel costs includes salaries, overtime, and benefits for
uniform and non-uniform corrections employees.
By comparison, only 11 percent of prison spending nationally was
spent on payments for prison health care, including payments to outside
health care providers, pharmaceuticals, and hospital care.16 The cost can be
much higher in individual states. In 2015, in six states (Alabama, Delaware,
Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, and South Dakota), health care spending
exceeded 20 percent of the state’s prison spending. This share depends
partially on the extent to which the corrections department contracts
out the provision of health care services. States that predominantly use
contracted health care services will spend more on outside health care
payments while states with a majority of health care services provided
by state employees will spend less on outside health services. However,
personnel costs in these states still made up the bulk of individual budgets.
Seventeen percent of spending nationally was devoted to a catchall category that includes facility maintenance, programming costs for
incarcerated people, debt service, and legal judgments. Thus, Vera’s finding
reveals that the average cost per inmate is in fact principally driven by the
number of corrections officers per incarcerated person, and their average
salaries.
A more accurate way to compare how much states spend on their
prisons is the cost per state resident. This is because examining the cost per

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

9

state resident reveals that the states spending more money than others for
each incarcerated person are not necessarily “high-cost” states if they have
lower than average incarceration rates. On average, states spend $137 per
state resident annually on prisons, ranging from a low of $51 per resident
in Utah to $429 per resident in Alaska (see Table 2 on page 12). Total prison
spending per state resident is a function of both the incarceration rate and
the amount of spending per incarcerated person. For example, Louisiana
and Colorado both spend around $130 per state resident on prisons. But
Louisiana, with an incarceration rate of 820 people in prison for every
100,000 state residents, spends around $16,000 for each person in prison.
Colorado has a lower incarceration rate of 331 people in prison for every
100,000 state residents, but it spends more — around $39,000 — on each
person incarcerated.

State spending on private prisons and local jails
Some states contract with private prison facilities or with
local jail facilities to hold some of the people incarcerated
under their jurisdiction. States then pay these facilities
boarding payments. While these boarding payments make
up only 5 percent of total state prison spending, the amounts
vary significantly by state. Nine states—Hawaii, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah,

and West Virginia—reported boarding payments to local jails
and private prisons that exceeded 15 percent of total prison
spending in 2015. In Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, and
Tennessee, these payments make up more than 30 percent of
prison spending.
See the appendix for state-by-state detail.

Trends in prison population and
spending: 2010 - 2015

P

olicymakers and other advocates for reform have assumed that a
direct relationship exists between a prison’s population and spending
in a corrections budget; specifically the belief persists that a decline
in prison population should necessarily register a decline in spending.
Vera sought to test this theory by tracking changes in prison population
against changes in prison spending between 2010 and 2015. According to
the Vera survey, 20 out of 45 responding states managed to decrease their
spending, and 13 of these 20 states achieved the hoped-for result of twin
reductions in population and spending — many because they were able

10

Vera Institute of Justice

to close facilities and reduce the number of employees. In these 13 states,
spending declined by a total of $1.6 billion, and the prison population
declined by a total of 31,090 people between 2010 and 2015 (see Table 3 on
page 14). There is often concern that reducing a state’s prison population
will result in increasing crime. Yet the crime rate in these 13 states also
declined — with most states experiencing a double-digit drop over the
same period. 17 However, 25 out of 45 states increased spending, some
despite reducing their population — either because they did not take
steps to downsize their workforce or the savings they attained through
population reductions were washed out by other rising costs.
Interviews with corrections administrators revealed that there were
certain factors that resulted in larger cost reductions than others, while
other factors surfaced limitations of certain cost–cutting measures.

How states saved money in prison
spending
By reducing the workforce in lockstep with the number of incarcerated
people, states can reduce employment costs while maintaining their staffing
ratio. For example, in New York, annual prison spending declined by $302
million between 2010 and 2015, a decrease of 8 percent. Changes in law
enforcement practices and the number of people sentenced to prison from
New York City — where many people admitted to state prison come from
— have helped reduce the prison population by 6,000 people since 2010 (a
10 percent decrease).18 Since 2010, the state has also closed 14 prisons and
has reduced its prison employment by 11 percent. Costs have decreased
with fewer employees, incarcerated people, and prisons to operate, despite
the fact that other factors, such as contracted salary increases and rising
health care expenditures, especially for Hepatitis C drugs, are creating cost
pressures.19
Similarly, in New Jersey annual prison spending declined by $159
million (or 11 percent) between 2010 and 2015, as the result of an expansion
in the use of diversion programs, such as drug courts, and increased rates
of parole. Concurrently, the number of prison employees declined by
8 percent through attrition and not filling vacancies. Despite increases
in spending on employee benefits, the decline in spending on salaries,
overtime, and boarding payments to local jails have meant an overall
decrease in prison expenditures.20
In 2010, South Carolina enacted broad-based criminal justice reform
to reduce the number of people sent to prison for failing to follow
supervision conditions while on probation or parole (such as missing an

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

11

Table 2

State prison spending per state resident, 2015

Alabama
Alaska

State residents

Prison expenditures

Incarceration rate
(per 100,000 state
residents)

Cost per
state
resident

4,853,875

$466,488,094

650

$96

737,709

$316,323,123

815

$429

Arizona

6,817,565

$1,069,998,638

618

$157

Arkansas

2,977,853

$371,968,841

597

$125

California

38,993,940

$8,596,902,049

341

$220

Colorado

5,448,819

$709,581,867

331

$130

Connecticut

3,584,730

$1,016,118,399

456

$283

944,076

$266,293,532

722

$282

Florida

20,244,914

$1,917,735,951

497

$95

Georgia

10,199,398

$921,844,210

452

$90

1,425,157

$178,406,163

425

$125

Delaware

Hawaii
Idaho

1,652,828

$180,115,744

491

$109

Illinois

12,839,047

$1,595,647,075

371

$124

Indiana

6,612,768

$517,678,909

433

$78

Iowa

3,121,997

$310,634,762

262

$99

Kansas

2,906,721

$237,682,123

334

$82

Kentucky

4,424,611

$351,336,792

476

$79

Louisiana

4,668,960

$622,350,856

820

$133

Maryland

5,994,983

$1,071,682,231

401

$179

Massachusetts

6,784,240

$594,295,857

159

$88

Michigan

9,917,715

$1,553,213,339

437

$157

Minnesota

5,482,435

$403,729,705

178

$74

Missouri

6,076,204

$716,287,058

531

$118

Montana

1,032,073

$95,125,223

274

$92

Nevada

2,883,758

$243,935,441

474

$85

New Jersey

8,935,421

$1,354,767,292

246

$152

New Mexico

2,080,328

$263,976,999

345

$127

New York

19,747,183

$3,688,356,319

269

$187

North Carolina

10,035,186

$1,118,669,204

369

$111

756,835

$65,467,993

224

$87

North Dakota
Ohio

11,605,090

$1,337,453,060

435

$115

Oklahoma

3,907,414

$451,501,686

700

$116

Oregon

4,024,634

$639,974,399

361

$159

Pennsylvania

12,791,904

$2,151,980,000

394

$168

Rhode Island

1,055,607

$186,349,078

301

$177

South Carolina

4,894,834

$436,615,085

445

$89

857,919

$73,122,593

411

$85

6,595,056

$723,680,760

468

$110

Texas

27,429,639

$3,283,213,997

544

$120

Utah

2,990,632

$152,778,962

231

$51

Vermont

626,088

$116,727,820

324

$186

Virginia

8,367,587

$824,010,613

462

$98

Washington

7,160,290

$632,557,822

233

$88

West Virginia

1,841,053

$188,966,523

374

$103

Wisconsin

5,767,891

$867,991,403

389

$150

312,096,967

$42,883,537,590

413

$137

South Dakota
Tennessee

TOTAL (45 states)

12

Vera Institute of Justice

Source: Vera state prison expenditure survey and
U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division Annual
Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to
July 1, 2016.

appointment or failing a drug test), and stem the tide of people incarcerated
for low-level offenses — at the time, these people made up the majority
of South Carolina’s prison population. 21 The new law restructured the
criminal code to ensure that prison space is focused on people convicted of
the most serious crimes, while making community-based sanctions more
widely available.22 It also authorized the use of administrative sanctions,
rather than prison, for people who violate their supervision conditions.23
Put together, the new law has helped reduce the prison population by
12 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2015 — a decline that has been
driven by a 36 percent reduction in admissions for nonviolent offenses and
a 46 percent decline in the number of people who have been admitted to
prison because of a parole or probation violation.24 Changes in supervision
practices have also improved probation and parole success rates, meaning
that fewer people are returning to prison for violating supervision
conditions.25 This has helped reduce spending by $11 million over the same
period. Population reduction also made it possible for the state to close
three minimum-security prisons between 2012 and 2015.26
In Michigan, annual prison spending declined by $221 million (or 12
percent) between 2010 and 2015, and the state was able to close several
prison facilities and consolidate others because of a variety of policies that
have helped keep the prison population down — including those that have
kept probationers and parolees from being sent to prison for a violation
of their terms of supervision, and sentencing policies that have kept more
people in the community.27 Significantly, this has also allowed the Michigan
Department of Corrections to reduce their number of employees. In mid2011 the state closed the Florence Crane Correctional Facility and moved
the 1,056 incarcerated people to vacancies in other facilities around the
state. The state reported that the cost to operate the facility was $27 million
per year.28 While the state selected this facility for closure partially based
on proximity to other prison facilities that might offer staff employment,
there were some staff reductions as a result of the closing.29

Savings without a reduced population
In seven states, spending declined even as the prison population grew. For
example, despite passing reform legislation in 2012 to slow prison growth,
the prison population of Oklahoma increased by 6 percent. However,
Oklahoma has had to make spending cuts elsewhere due to the state
budget shortfall, and has cut overall spending on its prisons by lowering
corrections employment by 14 percent. 30 In Nevada, the prison population
increased by 8 percent between 2010 and 2015. Yet total spending on
prisons declined by 15 percent over the same period. The drop in spending

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

13

Table 3

State prison population and expenditures, 2010 - 2015
Prison population

Alabama

Prison
population,
2010

Prison
population,
2015

Prison expenditures

Change
in prison
population,
2010-2015

Prison
expenditures,
2010 (inflation
adjusted to 2015
dollars)

Prison
expenditures,
2015

Change
in prison
expenditures,
2010-2015

31,873

31,563

-1.0%

$482,710,817

$466,488,094

-3.4%

Alaska

5,461

6,010

10.1%

$279,939,651

$316,323,123

13.0%

Arizona

40,458

42,131

4.1%

$1,058,588,444

$1,069,998,638

1.1%

Arkansas

14,800

17,785

20.2%

$346,075,666

$371,968,841

7.5%

California

168,044

132,992

-20.9%

$8,036,681,801

$8,596,902,049

7.0%

Colorado

19,738

18,054

-8.5%

$709,439,344

$709,581,867

0.0%*

Connecticut

18,492

16,347

-11.6%

$939,046,471

$1,016,118,399

8.2%

6,710

6,814

1.5%

$250,180,697

$266,293,532

6.4%

101,324

100,567

-0.7%

$2,175,001,882

$1,917,735,951

-11.8%

49,250

46,145

-6.3%

$937,934,701

$921,844,210

-1.7%

6,291

6,063

-3.6%

$168,911,005

$178,406,163

5.6%
18.3%

Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho

7,495

8,120

8.3%

$152,219,154

$180,115,744

Illinois

44,979

47,622

5.9%

$1,325,688,698

$1,595,647,075

20.4%

Indiana

28,332

28,656

1.1%

$578,737,303

$517,678,909

-10.6%

Iowa

8,384

8,195

-2.3%

$298,477,658

$310,634,762

4.1%

Kansas

8,689

9,697

11.6%

$233,231,736

$237,682,123

1.9%

Kentucky

20,443

21,062

3.0%

$369,125,775

$351,336,792

-4.8%

Louisiana

39,939

38,296

-4.1%

$667,693,269

$622,350,856

-6.8%

Maryland

25,259

24,028

-4.9%

$1,102,632,491

$1,071,682,231

-2.8%

Massachusetts

11,478

10,772

-6.2%

$575,908,502

$594,295,857

3.2%

Michigan

45,241

43,375

-4.1%

$1,773,912,932

$1,553,213,339

-12.4%

9,374

9,760

4.1%

$391,387,179

$403,729,705

3.2%

Missouri

30,418

32,284

6.1%

$727,452,301

$716,287,058

-1.5%

Montana

2,595

2,833

9.2%

$84,262,869

$95,125,223

12.9%

Nevada

12,619

13,665

8.3%

$285,827,951

$243,935,441

-14.7%

New Jersey

25,822

21,992

-14.8%

$1,514,062,321

$1,354,767,292

-10.5%

New Mexico

6,538

7,167

9.6%

$274,309,692

$263,976,999

-3.8%

New York

59,237

53,181

-10.2%

$3,990,824,975

$3,688,356,319

-7.6%

North Carolina

40,203

37,066

-7.8%

$1,194,046,296

$1,118,669,204

-6.3%

Minnesota

North Dakota

1,479

1,696

14.7%

$61,217,368

$65,467,993

6.9%

Ohio

50,960

50,452

-1.0%

$1,534,239,950

$1,337,453,060

-12.8%

Oklahoma

25,897

27,369

5.7%

$502,586,473

$451,501,686

-10.2%

Oregon

13,819

14,538

5.2%

$627,753,765

$639,974,399

1.9%

Pennsylvania

50,622

50,366

-0.5%

$1,760,004,449

$2,151,980,000

22.3%

Rhode Island

3,351

3,182

-5.0%

$175,536,150

$186,349,078

6.2%

24,710

21,773

-11.9%

$447,565,286

$436,615,085

-2.4%

South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas

3,422

3,524

3.0%

$66,177,862

$73,122,593

10.5%

28,102

30,837

9.7%

$678,030,989

$723,680,760

6.7%

154,315

149,159

-3.3%

$3,544,624,503

$3,283,213,997

-7.4%

Utah

6,578

6,907

5.0%

$148,166,778

$152,778,962

3.1%

Vermont

2,247

2,026

-9.8%

$113,853,297

$116,727,820

2.5%

Virginia

38,778

38,688

-0.2%

$799,367,854

$824,010,613

3.1%

Washington

16,554

16,716

1.0%

$693,643,913

$632,557,822

-8.8%

*Values round to 0.0%. Colorado’s

6,386

6,882

7.8%

$170,268,248

$188,966,523

11.0%

percent change is 0.02%.

23,015

22,461

-2.4%

$868,383,553

$867,991,403

0.0%*

Wisconsin’s percent change is

1,339,721

1,288,818

-3.8%

$43,115,732,021

$42,883,537,590

-0.5%

West Virginia
Wisconsin
TOTAL (45 states)

14

Vera Institute of Justice

Source: Vera survey of state prison
expenditures

-0.05%.

was driven by a 4 percent decline in the number of prison employees, a
state policy requiring state employees to take one unpaid furlough day per
month, and a decline in spending on all employee fringe benefits.31 Because
of these cuts, these states have fewer resources to meet the demands of
facilities with growing populations. In particular, a lower inmate-to-officer
staffing ratio can impact facility safety and effectiveness.
How states estimate potential savings
The average annual cost per inmate was $33,274 in 2015.
But as prison administrators are quick to note, reducing the
prison population by one person does not result in $33,274
in savings. This is because the average cost includes many
fixed costs such as administrative services and facility
maintenance, which do not change when the population
decreases. Instead, when the population decreases by one
person, a state will save money on variable costs, which
include things like food, clothing, laundry, and—in some
states—a per-diem payment to the prison health care
provider. If the state prison population drops by a sufficient
threshold, the state may be able to close a housing unit or a
prison facility. This means they can reduce step-fixed costs,
which include the salaries and benefits attendant to the
former employees of closed units and facilities.
Because the average cost cannot be used to estimate prison
savings, many states calculate a prison marginal cost, the

change in costs when the prison population declines by
one person. For example, South Carolina reports that the
annual marginal cost is $3,747 per inmate (the average cost
is $20,053) and New York reports that its annual marginal
cost is $18,706 per inmate (the average cost is $69,355).a
Importantly, the marginal cost is always smaller than the
average cost and generally found to be less than half the
value of the average cost.
See the Vera report A Guide to Calculating Justice-System
Marginal Costs for more information.
South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon
Services, Report to the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee,
November 2015. Marc Schabses, Cost Benefit Analysis for Criminal
Justice Deployment and Initial Application of the Results First Cost
Benefit Model (Albany, NY: New York Division of Criminal Justice
Services, 2013).
a

Why some states’ spending increased
More than half of responding states (25 of 45) registered an increase
in their prison spending between 2010 and 2015. These increases were
sometimes due to deliberate policy choices, such as a reduction in the use
of parole. With more people held in prison, a state may decide to hire more
employees, open new facilities or wings, and expand services like health
care for incarcerated people. But not all of the states with rising spending
also saw a growth in their prison population. For example, in 10 states,
prison spending continued to rise despite a shrinking prison population
because of rising employment and health care costs. Interviews also
revealed other factors driving this increase in spending.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

15

State prison population and expenditures, 2010 - 2015

In 13 states where prison
population has declined
since 2010, total prison
costs declined by

$1.6B.

In 7 states where the prison
population has increased
since 2010, total prison
costs declined by

$254M.

16

Vera Institute of Justice

In 10 states where the prison population has declined
since 2010, total prison
costs increased by

$1.1B.

In 15 states where the
prison population has
increased since 2010, total
prisons costs increased by

$508M.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

17

Public sentiment
Political and public reaction to a well-publicized crime can sometimes
sideline policy changes that aim to reduce prison spending. For example,
despite enacting criminal justice reform in 2011, public outcry after a highprofile crime committed by an absconded parolee in 2013 led Arkansas to
enact stringent parole policies that revoked more parolees back to prison.32
Because of these changes, the prison population soared, as did the number
of people held in local jails. Between 2010 and 2015, the prison population
increased by 20 percent, with much of this growth a result of Arkansas
sending people on probation or parole back to prison for violating terms of
their supervision in the community.33 The state had more prison employees
in 2015 than in 2010 and spent more on salaries and employee benefits. The
population held in local jails, meanwhile, increased by 66 percent between
2010 and 2015, and boarding payments to local jails to house overflow
increased by $5.4 million over this period. By 2015, some counties began
sending some of the people in their jurisdiction to be housed in Bowie
County, Texas.34

Rising employment costs
Fifteen states (of the 40 that could offer comparable data) reported an
increase in the number of prison employees between fiscal years 2010
and 2015 (including uniform staff, non-uniform staff, contract employees
for medical services, contract employees at private prisons, and all other
prison-related employees). Even in some states with relatively flat or
shrinking workforces, the corrections departments face rising salary costs
due to wage increases. On average, salary and overtime expenditures
(exclusive of employee benefits) made up 44 percent of state prison
spending in 2015 and employee benefits made up another 24 percent of
state prison spending.
In Pennsylvania, the prison workforce decreased by 8 percent
between 2010 and 2015, while the prison population remained largely flat.
Despite the decline in the number of employees, prison spending increased
by 22 percent between 2010 and 2015. Expenditures on employee benefits,
including health care for current and former employees, increased by 51
percent between 2010 and 2015, largely due to a dramatic increase in the
amount that state employers were required to contribute to employee
pensions.35 Additionally, salary expenditures increased by 8 percent due to
negotiated salary increases, while spending on overtime doubled, partially
as a result of hiring freezes in the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 budget years
that left many positions vacant.36

18

Vera Institute of Justice

Meanwhile, in a number of states that reduced their prison
populations, the anticipated cost reduction was offset by simultaneous
increases in the number of staff or in related employee costs. For
example, Vermont shrunk its total prison population by 10 percent
between fiscal year 2010 and 2015, and decreased its population held
in private out-of-state prisons by more than one-third. But the state
increased the number of state prison employees by 4 percent. With more
employees, costs like salaries, pensions, and fringe benefits all increased.37
In Rhode Island, salary and other fringe benefit expenditures increased
due to union negotiated increases while pension contributions increased
statewide due to pension reform efforts.38 Similarly, despite a decline in
both its prison population and the number of prison staff, California’s
prison spending rose $560 million between 2010 and 2015, primarily
because salary, pension, and other employee and retiree benefits
continued to increase, also as a result of union negotiated increases.39

Rising health care costs
The number of people aged 55 and older in state prisons has more than
doubled between 2003 and 2013, far exceeding the change in the overall
prison population over that period.40 With the rapid aging of the prison
population, a growing cohort of state prisoners are in need of specialized
care that addresses the typical chronic medical and mental conditions
that afflict the elderly, including dementia, impaired mobility, and loss
of hearing and vision. Also, due to medical histories often involving
substance use and inadequate medical care, people who are incarcerated
are on average substantially older physiologically than people who are
not incarcerated — meaning that the symptoms and conditions they
experience are those common to someone who is older than their actual
age.41 Although there is increasing availability and use of new drugs that
can provide greater health and quality of life than previous drugs, they
do so at a higher cost.42 For example, in Kentucky, health care spending
increased by 54 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, largely due
to both its growing aging population and the cost of pharmaceuticals for
HIV and Hepatitis C.43
Some states are legally required to improve health care for
incarcerated people, which can require an increase in spending.
Delaware was under a memorandum of agreement with the Department
of Justice over correctional health care practices. Between fiscal years
2010 and 2015, the state’s health care spending increased by 27 percent
and spending on overtime nearly doubled, partially as a strategy to meet
the requirements of this agreement.44

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

19

In some states, health care needs necessitate increased staffing levels,
more officer training, and expanded treatment offerings, bringing costs up
further. In Montana, health care costs have increased, partially as a result
of the completion, in 2012, of a 25-bed facility for people with serious,
chronic medical conditions.45 Montana’s prison population is aging and
faces a mounting need for care for acute health conditions.46 The average
cost per day at this facility is nearly three times higher than the cost of the
state’s other prisons.47

20

Vera Institute of Justice

Conclusion

A

s this report demonstrates, state spending on prisons is influenced
by a range of factors, and costs can vary widely from year to year.
In 14 states, costs have swung up (seven states) or down (seven
states) by a substantial 10 percent in only five years. Some factors are
largely outside of a corrections department’s control, such as rising health
care costs, statewide policies to increase public employee salaries and
benefits, and policy changes that affect sentencing, thus affecting the size
of the prison population. Other factors are more within the corrections
department’s control, such as inmate-to-officer staffing and the number of
prison facilities the state operates.
Since 2010, nearly half of states have reduced their spending on
prisons. Most of these states did so through deliberate choices to reduce
the size of their prison populations and downsize their prison staff. These
states have fewer people in state prisons, fewer state resources dedicated
to incarceration, and can even boast lower crime rates than five years ago.
They demonstrate that a growing prison system is not inevitable, and there
are steps that states can take to downsize.
A separate group of states also reduced their prison spending, despite
a growing number of people in state prisons. These states run the risk
of lowering the office-to-inmate staffing ratio, which can increase the
potential threats to both staff and incarcerated people. Spending that
declines despite a growing population decreases the state’s ability to offer
services, programs, or treatment, which may result in worse outcomes,
including leaving mental, behavioural, and other health needs unaddressed
and increasing recidivism if people are not properly prepared for reentry.
Thus, the surest — and safest — way to attain savings is to decrease
prison operations by also decreasing prison populations. Surveys and
follow-up interviews with states indicate that reducing the number of staff
commensurate with the size of the prison population is often challenging,
and all states face financial pressures from rising health care costs and
rising employee salaries and benefits. But 13 states — Alabama, Florida,
Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North
Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin — show that it is
possible to reduce prison populations and prison expenses.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

21

Appendix

State prison costs as a share of total prison spending
Salaries and
overtime

Other
personnel
services

Boarding payments to
local jails, private prisons
and prisons in other
states

Payments to
health care
providers 

All
other

Alabama

39%

15%

2%

22%

23%

Alaska

39%

23%

11%

6%

21%

Arizona

37%

19%

13%

13%

18%

Arkansas

45%

16%

6%

15%

18%

California

51%

23%

3%

6%

17%

Colorado

49%

15%

11%

6%

19%

Connecticut

39%

44%

0%

8%

8%

Delaware

33%

16%

0%

24%

26%

Florida

35%

19%

8%

18%

20%

Georgia

28%

22%

14%

20%

16%

Hawaii

58%

0%

20%

5%

17%

Idaho

30%

16%

13%

21%

19%

Illinois

49%

41%

0%

10%

0%

Indiana

39%

23%

2%

18%

18%

Kentucky

24%

14%

30%

15%

17%

Louisiana

29%

17%

33%

5%

15%

Maryland

44%

22%

0%

16%

18%

Massachusetts

68%

2%

0%

16%

14%

Michigan

41%

35%

1%

8%

15%

Minnesota

43%

22%

2%

7%

27%

Missouri

40%

21%

0%

21%

18%

Montana

26%

12%

33%

19%

10%

Nevada

51%

23%

0%

6%

21%

New Jersey

45%

25%

0%

12%

18%

New Mexico

27%

13%

32%

17%

11%

New York

50%

32%

0%

10%

7%

North Carolina

49%

25%

0%

11%

16%

Ohio

36%

27%

5%

9%

22%

Oklahoma

37%

19%

28%

11%

5%

Oregon

42%

25%

0%

6%

26%

Pennsylvania

44%

31%

1%

5%

19%

Rhode Island

61%

30%

0%

5%

4%

South Carolina

48%

20%

0%

10%

22%

physicians, and for pharmaceuticals. In states that

South Dakota

33%

12%

0%

28%

26%

provide direct health care services, the salaries and

Tennessee

23%

6%

35%

15%

21%

Texas

39%

18%

3%

16%

24%

Utah

35%

37%

19%

8%

0%

Vermont

34%

17%

9%

19%

21%

Virginia

41%

25%

3%

16%

14%

Washington

54%

21%

0%

7%

19%

West Virginia

38%

15%

21%

11%

15%

Wisconsin

44%

22%

0%

7%

27%

TOTAL (42 states)

44%

24%

5%

11%

17%

22

Vera Institute of Justice

Source: Vera survey of state prison expenditures
Notes: Iowa, Kansas, and North Dakota did not
provide disaggregated expenditure data. “Other
personnel services” includes pension contributions,
retiree health care payments (often called OPEB),
employee health insurance, and all other fringe
benefits, such as FICA, workers’ compensation,
life insurance, and any other personnel services
expenditures, including those paid for by state
agencies other than the department of corrections.
“Payments to health care providers” includes
payments to health care providers, hospitals,

benefits for health care employees were included in
the salary and other personnel services categories.
“All other” includes debt service and pay-as-you-go
capital, payments for legal judgments and claims
or contributions to the state tort fund, expenses
related to the payment, administration, or oversight
of private prisons, education and training for
incarcerated people, and all other non-personnel
services and other costs related to the confinement
of adults from both the department of corrections
and other state agencies. Amounts may not sum to
100% due to rounding.

Endnotes
1	 Between 1925 and 1975, the U.S. incarceration rate hovered around
100 per 100,000, with a minor spike between 1937 and 1941, when
it reached between 120 and 140 per 100,000. See University at
Albany, Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center, Sourcebook of
Criminal Justice Statistics, Table 6.28.2012: “Number and rate (per
100,000 resident population in each group) of sentenced prisoners
under jurisdiction of State and Federal correctional authorities
on December 31, by sex, United States 1925-2012” https://perma.
cc/7GKM-8HTU For the 2009 incarcerated population count, see E.
Ann Carson and Elizabeth Anderson, Prisoners in 2015 (Washington,
DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), 3.
2	 For an overview of the expanding penal code, see Douglas Husak,
Overcriminalization: The Limits of The Criminal Law (Oxford,
UK: Oxford University Press, 2009); also see Stephen F. Smith,
“Overcoming Overcriminalization,” Journal Of Criminal Law &
Criminology 102, no.3 (2012): 537-543; and Paul J. Larkin Jr., “Public
Choice Theory and Overcriminalization,” Harvard Journal of Law &
Public Policy 36, no.2 (2013): 715, 723-735. Quality-of-life offenses
include loitering and disorderly conduct. For an example of zerotolerance policing practices in New York City, see Jeffrey Fagan
and Garth Davies, “Street Stops and Broken Windows: Terry, Race,
and Disorder in New York City,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 28,
(2000): 457, 470-2, and 475-8; also see Jeffrey Fagan, Valerie West,
and Jan Holland, “Reciprocal Effects of Crime and Incarceration
in New York City Neighborhoods,” Fordham Urban Law Journal
30, no.5 (2002): 1551 and 1563-1566, and K. Babe Howell, “Broken
Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive OrderMaintenance Policing,” New York University Review of Law & Social
Change 33 (2009): 271, 276. For information on the introduction
of stiffer penalties, see Ram Subramanian and Ruth Delaney,
Playbook for Change? States Reconsider Mandatory Sentences
(New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2014), 6.
3	 In 1979, there were 568 state prisons. By 2005, that number reached
1,719—a 200 percent increase. See James Stephen, Census of State
and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1990 (Washington, DC: Bureau
of Justice Statistics, 1992), iv; and James Stephen, Census of State
and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2005 (Washington, DC: Bureau
of Justice Statistics, 2008), 2. Prison construction was in part
encouraged by federal legislation. In 1994, the federal government
passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that
established the Truth-in-Sentencing (TIS) Incentive Grants Program,
which provided grants for prison construction and expansion to
states that adopted policies requiring people sentenced to prison to
serve a substantial portion—up to 85 percent—of their sentences.
While Delaware, Minnesota, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington had
already adopted TIS laws prior to 1994, 22 additional states adopted
policies by 1998 to secure their eligibility for TIS grant money. See
Paula M. Ditton and Doris James Wilson, Truth in Sentencing in
State Prisons (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999),
2-3.

4	 Between 1990 and 2005, the number of staff working in state and
federal confinement facilities grew from approximately 259,000 to
445,000 staff, a 72 percent increase. See James Stephen, Census of
State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1990, 1992, 15; and James
Stephen, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2005,
2008, 4.
5	 From 2000 to 2005, the number of private facilities increased from
16 percent (264) to 23 percent (415) of all correctional institutions,
two-thirds of which were under contract to state authorities. See
James Stephen, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities,
2005 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008), 1. An
example of a state department of correction sending population
overflow to other systems is Pennsylvania. In 2010, Pennsylvania
entered into two renewable two-year contracts with Michigan
and Virginia to house approximately 2,000 people it had no room
to house. See Corinne Reilly, “Pennsylvania to Reclaim Prisoners
Housed in Virginia,” The Virginian-Pilot, September 30, 2011, https://
perma.cc/F2JK-RKP4. The number of people under the jurisdiction
of state prisons who were held in local jails grew from 59,250 in
1999, the first year the Bureau of Justice Statistics collected this
data, to 80,426 in 2015, an increase of 36 percent. See E. Ann
Carson and Joseph Mulako-Wangota, Bureau of Justice Statistics,
Count of jurisdiction population - held in county facilities/local
jails. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool
(CSAT) - Prisoners at www.bjs.gov.
6	 E. Ann Carson and Elizabeth Anderson, Prisoners in 2015
(Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), 3.
7	 For example, see Rebecca Silber, Ram Subramanian, and Maia
Spotts, Justice in Review: New Trends in State Sentencing and
Corrections 2014-2015 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016). For
research about effective correctional strategies in the community,
see Vera Institute of Justice, The Potential of Community
Corrections to Improve Safety and Reduce Incarceration (New
York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2013). Also see National Institute
of Corrections and Crime and Justice Institute, Implementing
Evidence-Based Practice in Community Corrections: The Principles
of Effective Intervention (Washington, DC: Department of Justice,
National Institute of Corrections, 2004); and Christopher T.
Lowenkamp and Edward J. Latessa, “Understanding the Risk
Principle: How and Why Correctional Interventions Can Harm LowRisk Offenders” in Topics in Community Corrections (Washington,
DC: National Institute of Corrections, 2004).
8	 For declining rates of criminal victimization, see Jennifer L.
Truman and Rachel E. Morgan, Criminal Victimization, 2015
(Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), Figures
1-3. For an opinion poll on criminal justice issues, see Jill Mizell
and Loren Siegel, An Overview of Public Opinion and Discourse
on Criminal Justice Issues (New York: The Opportunity Agenda,

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

23

2014), 19-24. For example, The Opportunity Agenda found that 69
percent of Americans felt that the criminal justice system “needed
major improvements” or “a complete redesign,” and that nearly
half of Americans believe society is better served by a greater effort
to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes. The report also cites a
Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center study finding that,
in 2010, 64 percent of respondents reported that their preferred
approach to lowering crime was by adding “more money and effort”
to “attacking the social and economic problems that lead to crime
through better education and job training,” compared to only 32
percent who preferred “more money and effort” for “deterring
crime by improving law enforcement with more prisons, police, and
judges.” In 1994, only 51 percent of respondents favored the former
approach. Also see Pew Center on the States, Public Opinion on
Sentencing and Corrections Policy in America (Washington, DC:
The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2012) for the result of a public opinion
poll that demonstrates that most Americans support alternatives to
incarceration for nonviolent offenses. For research on the recidivism
rate, see Matthew R. Durose et al., Recidivism of Prisoners Released
in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 (Washington, DC:
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014). According to that report, in 2005,
67.8 percent of the state prisoners released from 30 states were
rearrested within three years, and 76.6 percent were rearrested
within five years. Also see The Pew Center on the States, State of
Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington,
DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011).
9	 See, for example, Rebecca Silber, et al., Justice in Review, 2016;
and Ram Subramanian, Rebecka Moreno, and Sharyn Broomhead,
Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and
Corrections Trends (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2014). See
also Lauren Brooke Eisen and Juliene James, Reallocating Justice
Resources: A Review of 2011 State Sentencing Trends (New York: Vera
Institute of Justice, 2012); Alison Lawrence, Trends in Sentencing and
Corrections: State Legislation (Washington, DC: National Conference
of State Legislatures, 2013); and Alison Lawrence and Donna Lyons,
Principles of Effective State Sentencing and Corrections Policy
(Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures, 2011).
10	 While nearly all states were able to comprehensively tally the total
cost of the prison system, three states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, and
South Dakota—could not provide the amount of expenditures for
pension contributions paid for by other state agencies. In addition,
a number of states could not provide the amount of Other PostEmployment Benefits (OPEB) for prison employees, while other states
did not provide other costs that support prisons, such as hospital
care for incarcerated people or debt service. Thus, these estimates
should be considered conservative.
11	 Bureau of Economic Analysis, Table 1.1.9 “Implicit Price Deflators
for Gross Domestic Product,” at https://bea.gov/iTable/iTable.
cfm?reqid=9&step=3&isuri=1&903=13#reqid=9&step=3&isuri=1&903=13.
12 	 See Erving Goffman, “On the characteristics of total institutions,”
in Donald R. Cressey (ed), The Prison: Studies in Institutional

24

Vera Institute of Justice

Organization and Change (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
1961), 15-64. Following Erving Goffman, social scientists have long
viewed prisons as a primary example of a “total institution.” In
such an institution, people who reside there must conduct different
aspects of their life—such as sleeping, eating, and working—in the
same place, under a singular authority, with other people they have
not chosen, under a structured scheme of formal rules, and with
limited contact with the outside world.
13	 Vera’s writing generally uses “incarcerated person” in lieu of the
term “inmate.” In this report, we use “inmate” when referencing
the commonly used statistic “cost per inmate,” and “incarcerated
person” when making reference to people held in prison.
14 The corrections systems in Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii,
Rhode Island, and Vermont have a unified structure, meaning that
jails and prisons are operated by the state rather than county and
state jurisdictions, respectively. The figures provided by these states
include people in both sentenced and accused status, meaning that
they include the cost of pretrial detention.
15 	Three states—Iowa, Kansas, and North Dakota—did not provide
disaggregated expenditure data.
16	 The health care category comprises payments to health care
providers, hospitals, physicians, and for pharmaceuticals for
incarcerated people. In states that provide direct health care
services, the salaries and benefits for health care employees were
included in the salary and benefit category. The health care estimate
should be considered conservative. For more on state prison health
care spending, see The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John D.
and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, State Prison Health Care
Spending (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John
D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2014).
17	 The Pew Charitable Trusts, National Imprisonment and Crime Rates
Continue to Fall (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2016).
18	 During this period in New York City, felony arrests declined,
and judges and prosecutors increased the use of alternatives to
incarceration such as adjournments in contemplation of dismissal,
conditional and unconditional discharges, drug treatment, and fines,
and decreased the use of prison, jail, and probation sentences. See
Judith Greene and Vincent Schiraldi, “Better by Half: The New York
City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration while Increasing
Public Safety,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 29, (Oakland, CA:
University of California Press, 2016) 22-38.
19 	Andrew Howland, chief budget analyst, New York State Department
of Corrections and Community Supervision, interview by Vera
Institute of Justice, August 18, 2016.
20 	Gary Alpert, assistant commissioner of administration, Patricia
Loreti, director, Office of Financial Management, and Donna Gies,
supervising administrative analyst, New Jersey Department of
Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of Justice, August 25, 2016.

21 	 John P. Morgan, director, Division of Budget and Planning, South
Carolina Department of Corrections, e-mail correspondence with
Vera Institute of Justice, August 16, 2016.
22 	See Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010,
South Carolina General Assembly, 118th Session, 2009-2010, https://
perma.cc/Y3EL-KWRH
23 	Ibid.
24 	Emma Dean and J. J. Gentry, State Expenditures Savings Report
(Columbia, SC: The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Oversight
Committee, 2015), 3 and 5.

Retirement System, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania State
Employees’ Retirement System 2013 Actuarial Report (Harrisburg, PA:
SERS, 2013), 17.
36	 Harry Jones, director of administration, Pennsylvania Department
of Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of Justice, August 15, 2016.
See also Charles Thompson, “State Prison Overtime Debate is ‘Exhibit
A’ in Pennsylvania’s Budget Stalemate,” PennLive.com, February 29,
2016, https://perma.cc/F23K-3BKJ
37	 Matt D’Agostino, financial director, Vermont Department of
Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of Justice, August 25, 2016.
38	 Joanne Hill, associate director, Financial Resources, Rhode Island
Department of Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of Justice,
August 15, 2016.

25 	Ibid, 3-6.
26 	South Carolina Department of Corrections, Facility Openings and
Closures at https://perma.cc/7XKN-QCMD. Two additional facilities
were closed in 2016.
27 	John Agar, “Michigan Prison to Close as Inmate Population Declines,”
Mlive.com, May 31, 2016, https://perma.cc/6W9R-L5S7
28 	Michigan Department of Corrections, “Announcement of the Closing
of Florence Crane Facility,” Press release, March 24, 2011.
29 	Shannon Pike, budget, accounting and projections division
administrator, Michigan Department of Corrections, interview by
Vera Institute of Justice, August 24, 2016.
30 	Tom James, chief financial officer, and Ashlee Clemmons, chief
administrator, Business Services, Oklahoma Department of
Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of Justice, August 24, 2016.
31	 Scott Ewart, chief of fiscal services, and John Borrowman, deputy
director, Support Services, Nevada Department of Corrections,
interview by Vera Institute of Justice, September 21, 2016.
32 	See Public Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (SB 750), http://www.
arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2011/2011R/Bills/SB750.pdf. Also see Pew
Center on the States, Arkansas’s 2011 Public Safety Reform Legislation
to Reduce Recidivism and Curtail Prison Growth (Washington, DC:
Pew Center on the States, 2011); and Council of State Governments
(CSG) Justice Center, Justice Reinvestment in Arkansas (Lexington,
KY: CSG, 2016).
33	 Ibid. Council of State Governments, 2016.
34	 Tiffanye Compton, research and planning administrator and Mike
Carraway, assistant director of administrative services, Arkansas
Department of Correction, interview by Vera Institute of Justice,
August 23, 2016.
35	The employee contribution rate for the States Employees’ Retirement
System increased from 4 percent in 2010 to 20.5 percent in 2015.
See States Employees’ Retirement System, Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System 2008 Actuarial
Report (Harrisburg, PA: SERS, 2008), 13; and State Employees’

39	 Carlos Quant, staff services manager, California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation, interview by Vera Institute of Justice,
August 31, 2016.
40	 E. Ann Carson and William J. Sabol, Aging of the State Prison
Population, 1993-2013 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics,
2016.
41	 R.V. Rikard and Ed Rosenberg, “Aging Inmates: A Convergence
of Trends in the American Criminal Justice System,” Journal of
Correctional Health Care 13, no 3 (2007): 150-162.
42	 See Kristin Gourlay, “Costly Hepatitis C Drugs Threaten to Bust
Prison Budgets,” NPR, December 24, 2014, http://www.npr.org/
sections/health-shots/2014/12/24/372721256/costly-hepatitis-cdrugs-threaten-to-bust-prison-budgets and Beth Schwartzapfel,
“Why Some Prisoners with HIV Get Better Treatment than Others,”
The Marshall Project, March 29, 2016, https://perma.cc/YR6B-88Y4.
43	 Hilarye Dailey, director of administrative services, Kentucky
Department of Corrections, e-mail correspondence with Vera Institute
of Justice, August 24, 2016.
44	 Jodie Wedel, deputy bureau chief, administrative services, and
Robert May, deputy bureau chief, Bureau of Prisons, Delaware
Department of Correction, interview by Vera Institute of Justice,
August 31, 2016.
45	Montana Department of Corrections memo, from Director Mike
Ferriter to Department of Corrections employees, Re: Lewistown
infirmary project, May 18, 2012, https://perma.cc/7WK6-G8EB
46	 April Grady, budget and contract management bureau chief,
Montana Department of Corrections, interview by Vera Institute of
Justice, September 12, 2016.
47	 Montana Department of Corrections, 2015 Biennial Report (Helena,
MT: Montana Department of Corrections, 2015), C-5.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

25

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Vera Institute of Justice

Acknowledgements
The authors wish to thank the state departments of corrections who
completed the survey and participated in interviews. We would also like
to thank Mary Crowley, Christian Henrichson, Jim Parsons, and Fred
Patrick for their review and comments; Erika Turner for editing the report
and leading the publication process; and Gloria Mendoza for her help
in designing the report. We are deeply grateful to the Robert W. Wilson
Charitable Trust for supporting this report.

About Citations
As researchers and readers alike rely more and more on public knowledge
made available through the Internet, “link rot” has become a widelyacknowledged problem with creating useful and sustainable citations. To
address this issue, the Vera Institute of Justice is experimenting with the
use of Perma.cc (https://perma.cc/), a service that helps scholars, journals,
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Credits
© Vera Institute of Justice 2017. All rights reserved. An electronic version of this report is posted on
Vera’s website at www.vera.org/price-of-prisons-2015.
Image credits: ©2017 Neil Webb c/o theispot
The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis and
research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice, and works in
close partnerships with government and civic leaders to implement it. Vera is currently pursuing
core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, and ensuring
that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. For more
information, visit www.vera.org.
For more information about this report, contact Ram Subramanian, editorial director,
Communications, at rsubramanian@vera.org. For more information on Vera’s research on prison
and jail spending, contact Christian Henrichson, research director, Center on Sentencing and
Corrections, at chenrichson@vera.org.

Suggested Citation
Chris Mai and Ram Subramanian. Price of Prisons 2015: Examining State Spending Trends,
2010-2015. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017.

The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010-2015

27

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