Spiraling Prison Costs

It’s no great state secret that maintaining a prison system is expensive. Since California has the largest prison system in the nation, it should also be no surprise that it is the most costly. The official state budget for the operation of the California prison system is teetering on $12 Billion annually–nearly $2 Billion more than the previous budget year. That pencils out to $73,649 per inmate per year, estimated to increase to $80,729 in the 2018-2019 budget.


You’d think that the massive increase in general fund expenditures would be driven by a corresponding increase in prison population. If that was your assumption, you’d be wrong. A recent LA Times article states the cost to house a prisoner in the state has doubled since 2005. The budget prepared by the state’s Department of Finance actually projects a decrease in prison population. So how does that work?

Think of operating a prison in the same manner as operating a small city. All the infrastructure, staff, services, and resources needed to keep a city fully functional are required to maintain a prison. Electricity, road maintenance, roof repairs, telecommunication, waste disposal–all essential to, quite literally, keep the lights on in a prison. A single light bulb costs the same to operate, no matter how many inmates are there to see the light.

image via the fog city journal


Over $2 Billion and over 14,000 positions provide medical and mental health treatment to inmates confined in prison facilities. Federal Court mandates drove the cost up for the delivery of “Constitutionally Required” treatment for persons under state care. Many have argued that the level of inmate care is more than a poor citizen would find in the community and access to services is virtually unimpeded. And yes, the state has funded sex reassignment surgery for inmates serving life sentences for murder. Now, I support transgender rights, but it seems to me that this particular surgery is something that could wait until the inmate is close to getting out, if that’s their choice.

The big difference in prison cost versus running a city, is that the city doesn’t have walls and gun towers to maintain, nor a lethal electric fence to power. If it does, you may want to consider moving to a more hospitable community. Keeping the public safe requires custody staff to make certain that the convicts stay on the inside. That is a huge part of the cost, requiring almost 24,000 personnel and nearly $4 Billion annually.

In spite of the high cost, prison operations make up only 9% of the state’s general fund expenditure.

CA Dept. of Finance

That cost is worth it. Sure comparisons are going to get tossed out comparing the annual cost per inmate to an Ivy League University tuition, but the comparison forgets to include food, boarding, transportation, medical, mental health treatment, and all the staffing costs.

I’m more concerned about the state budget “hiding the pea” to meet federal court population caps. We’ve pushed the population to the local level and made budget assumptions that may not provide the substantial savings that legislators promised. More to come on the two major law changes (AB 109 and Prop. 57) that reclassified thousands of inmates as non-serious/non-violent and prevented a state prison sentence.

Some feel that budget wonks and legislative types falsely promised a “prison dividend” from savings related to recent law changes to lower the prison population. Instead, many report an uptick in the number of local crimes. Time will tell the price of that public safety gamble…



  1. Wow. It’s hard to believe how they justify sexual reassignment to any inmate, never mind murderers doing life. It also begs the question, do they then transfer said inmate to a women’s prison?

    1. Sue, that is exactly the process. After surgery, the inmate transfers to a prison aligned with the post surgery gender. I think there’s a plot in there for a new book…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: