Housing a prisoner in CA now costs more than a year at Harvard

$75,650

That’s how much it costs to incarcerate a prisoner in CA each year. With 133,000 prisoners one doesn’t need to read an in depth analysis from a self-important blogger to realize that’s a lot of money. Governor Brown’s new budget plan that starts July 1st includes a record $11.4 billion allocated for CDCR.

The cost per prisoner has doubled since 2005 despite court orders to alleviate overcrowding that has reduced prison populations by one-quarter. Salaries and benefits for prison guards, who have one of the largest & most powerful unions in CA, has driven much of the increase. Expanding access to medical services is also central to the growth. Apparently, it is very expensive to *actually* provide adequate medical care when an agency has to do so for 133,000 individuals. The result is a per-inmate cost that is the nation’s highest, a full $2,000 above tuition, fees, & living expenses to attend Harvard.

Since 2015 CA’s per inmate cost have surged nearly $10,000, or about 13%. New York is a distant second in overall costs at $69,000 per prisoner. But how does this trend make sense when prison populations have been declining? Well, let’s start by looking at CDCR’s institutional behavior. CDCR currently has one employee for every 2 inmates. In 1994 that ratio was one employee for every 4 inmates. Careers at CA prisons are considered good jobs and are vital to local economies. This makes more sense if one reflects on the location of most CA prisons (rural, distant, low income regions of CA). Ever since CA was sued for prison overcrowding the Brown Administration’s primary response has been to ship low level offenders to county jails. This has created other problems, covered in previous posts, that led to the contemporary outcome, which frankly is rather predictable. By removing all the low need offenders from the prison equation CA placed a priority on incarcerating the high-risk, high-need offenders. High risk offenders cost more to incarcerate given the extra resources needed to ensure safety, programs, and supervision. Since virtually all CA prisons are now filled exclusively with these type of offenders it’s not hard to understand why incarceration is costing more per inmate in the face of falling prison populations. It should also be noted that prisoners who are sentenced to long bids will certainly have deteriorating health conditions over time. Prisons are high stress environments (understatement of the century?) that exasperate pre-existing conditions. Proactive medical care has never been a priority to CDCR. One could go so far as to say that reactive medical care is still new to CDCR’s treatment of inmate populations.

One silver lining however is that CDCR predicts 11,500 fewer inmates in four years because voters approved Prop 57 in November. (Common sense prison reform initiatives seem like a good idea, huh?) The trick will be match to this decline in prison populations with a decrease in prison spending…

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