The price of prisons

What part of state government is growing faster than education or Medicaid? Nationwide, spending on correctional facilities jumped by 9.2 percent in fiscal 2006, second only to transportation, according to One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. The report from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project warns that “prison costs are blowing holes in state budgets.” This is true even in Massachusetts, which has a relatively low incarceration rate. We rank 42nd, with 356 prisoners per 100,000 residents — far below the national rate of 750 but comparable to the Ukraine’s 345. But we devoted 5.1 percent of total general fund expenditures to corrections in fiscal year 2007, up from 3.2 percent in 1987. (Nationally, the figure is 6.8 percent, up from 5.0 percent.) Last year Massachusetts spent $1.1 billion on a corrections system that included approximately 11,400 inmates.

Meet the Author

“Tough on crime” policies aren’t the only reason for increasing costs. The Pew report also points to medical care, which now accounts for one-tenth of all corrections costs: “The rise in medical outlays largely stems from mushrooming costs associated with special needs populations, including HIV-positive prisoners and geriatric inmates.”

As our map shows, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the number of prisoners in a state and how much it costs to keep someone locked up for a year. In 2005, Massachusetts spent $43,026 in operating costs per inmate, second only to Rhode Island’s $44,860. Almost the entire Northeast fell into the high-cost, low-imprisonment category. At the other end of the spectrum, Louisiana spent the least per prisoner ($13,099 annually) and also posts the highest incarceration rate in the US (857 per 100,000 residents).

Among Southern states, North Carolina has the lowest incarceration rate, largely thanks to reforms in the early 1990s that increased sentences for violent offenders but steered nonviolent criminals (many of them drug users) away from hard time. But the state’s costs per prisoner are now the highest in the region — not really surprising, given the economy of scale in running prisons, as well as the probability that fewer young, nonviolent inmates means a disproportionate number of individuals who need close supervision or medical services.