State governments spent a combined $55 billion on corrections in 2020, with most of the spending going toward operating state-run prisons. There were more than 1.2 million people in prison in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Spending per prisoner varies widely across states, from about $18,000 per prisoner in Mississippi to $135,978 per prisoner in Wyoming in 2020. States spent an average of $45,771 per prisoner for the year.
Money allocated to corrections departments in each state primarily goes toward prison operations and paying correctional officers. Some states may also fund additional rehabilitation programs, drug treatment centers, and juvenile justice initiatives through these state agencies.
Most states leave the operation of jails to county and city law enforcement agencies. Jails hold people awaiting trial or those with sentences of less than one year. An inmate is transferred to a state-run prison after being convicted of a felony with a sentence of one year or longer.
However, six states with relatively small prison populations operate under a “unified” system, which integrates the prison and jail systems. These states typically have higher spending per prison inmate because some state-allocated funds also go toward the jail system.
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What factors influence spending?
One major cost included in prison spending is salaries and benefits for correctional officers. The average annual salary for a correctional officer was $53,420 in 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pay for correctional officers on a state-by-state basis tends to track with how well all workers are paid in a state. Officers in high-wage states, such as California, New York, and Massachusetts, make double the salaries of officers in low-wage states, such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia.
Another large factor in prison spending is the operational costs of prison facilities. For states with small prison populations, these costs increase the spending per prisoner.
Operational costs can also be higher in states with older prisons that require more upkeep. The three oldest prisons in the US that are still in operation are in New York and New Jersey. The fourth is in California. New York and California each spend more than double the national average cost per inmate.
Which states have the highest prison incarceration rates?
The prison incarceration rate is the number of prisoners per 100,000 residents of the state. Alaska tops all states with 625 prisoners per 100,000 residents. Mississippi has the second highest prison incarceration rate at 594 prisoners per 100,000 residents.
The South has the highest prison incarceration rate of any region, at 424 prisoners per 100,000 residents. The Northeast has the lowest prison incarceration rate at 185 prisoners per 100,000 residents.