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The Cost Of Life In Prison


Aired 1/20/10

The Supreme Court has rejected California's challenge to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The High Court says the state must follow a federal order to reduce its prison numbers by 40-thousand within two years. Yesterday, we told how overcrowding is taking a toll on old and sick inmates. Now, we look at the cost of spending life in prison. KPBS Producer Wendy Fry joins us with that part of the story.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: As an inmate ages, his expenses behind bars can nearly triple as he requires more health care.

DWANE BROWN (Host): The Supreme Court has rejected California's challenge to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The high court says the state must follow a federal order to reduce its prison numbers by 40,000 within two years. Yesterday, we told you how overcrowding is taking a toll on old and sick inmates. Now, we look at the cost of spending life in prison. KPBS Producer Wendy Fry joins us with that part of the story.

Wendy, you went through state documents, analyzed data about California's prison population. What surprised you most?

WENDY FRY (Web Producer): The lack of data that the Department of Corrections uses to track costs. We spend more than 10 percent of the General Fund and more than $10 billion on Corrections, and the California State Auditor has found that the Department of Corrections is just failing to keep basic data so that those costs can be tracked and we can find a way to save some money. In fact, the databases for the inmates, and prison populations and costs are spread out among several different agencies and more than 80 databases.

BROWN: What kind of trends have you seen in our prison system over say the last 10 years?

FRY: The prison population that is over the age of 40 is increasing at an alarming rate, while the prison population change of younger inmates is going down and that's because of Three Strikes law. It's problematic because of how expensive the older inmates are with their increased health care costs. That's just because just like outside of prison the majority of our health care costs are spent in the last years of our lives, the same is true behind bars.

BROWN: And California inmates taxpayers cost what? $50,000 per year?

FRY: That's according to the California State Auditor, but then, once an inmate reaches the age of 55, you can basically calculate three times the cost. If we think we're having a prison crisis right now, we just need to wait about 5 years.

BROWN: I wonder how California compares to say a large state like New York.

FRY: We spend on average more than any other state on cost per inmate. A lot of that has to do with the failure in data keeping. The Department of Corrections is overpaying employees to take care of these aging inmates by almost $600,000.

So, one of the aspects I was very interested in is how California compares to other states in terms of decreased violent crimes, we checked with the Bureau of Justice and the percent change of violent crimes and compared that with the percent change of prison population. And yes, we have decreased violent crimes, but our prison population has increased. Whereas other states, for example New York was able to reduce its prison population and reduce violent crimes.

BROWN: How does the juvenile justice system compare to the adult system?

FRY: We also have more juveniles serving life sentences than in California than in any other state. More than 2600 juveniles are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 and if you calculate out the cost, using the 50-grand a year and then the 150-grand after they each reach the age of 55, you're going to be looking at $6.4 billion* to have those 2600 juveniles to serve out a life sentence in prison.

BROWN: What kind of policy changes, Wendy, can we expect going forward?

FRY: They're looking at moving toward privatization as the governor announced in his State address. In other states, where they have privatized medical care for aging and dying inmates such as Tennessee and New York, there have been reports of problems with accountability to the public and some questions raised over the methods used to save money.

ALAN RAY: That's KPBS producer Wendy Fry. You can see inside the California Medical Facility, and hear from aging inmates by going to our Web site and looking at

*This figure was estimated with a complex equation obtained through several public requests for information through several agencies. It factors in rate of release, decreased life expectancy for lifelong inmates and other considerations. It does not factor general increases to health care costs.

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Avatar for user 'Justicewatchdog'

Justicewatchdog | January 21, 2010 at 9:29 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

Inmates who have made one huge mistake in their life, but who have been model inmates for years should be reviewed and released with GPS. The problem is that there is not an intelligent panel that knows who to release and who shouldn't be released. The parole panels are ignorant and don't have a clue who they should release in California. The release of inmates should be on an individual bases no matter the crime. I think a brain dead or quadriplegic inmate is safe to be released. LWOP inmates have a less than 1% recidivism rate in this state. These inmates cost the state the most money. Common sense will point to release of certain LWOP inmates, but the state never seems to grow any common sense in their un-educated decisions.

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Avatar for user 'ReEntry'

ReEntry | January 21, 2010 at 9:35 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

The inmate who wants a transfer to an out-of-state facility CANNOT be moved if he has any health problems. That means that we can only send the WELL ONES out to privatized prisons. We keep packing in the prisoners into tighter and tighter facilities, they get sicker and sicker and we Californians keep paying the higher and higher bills.

Is anyone in Sacramento listening?

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Avatar for user 'norweb'

norweb | January 21, 2010 at 10:24 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

I believe the US Supreme Court will refuse to hear Schwarzenegger's appeal.

The State is stalling for time so they can keep the prison industry alive and financially well off.

The three Federal judge panel who issued the Court Order will not be challenged by the US Supreme Court. That was the purpose of the three Judge panel to begin with, so their order would not be over turned.

The California prison industry better wake up and smell the coffee. The chickens are coming home to roost. You cannot lock people up like animals and not expect to have your right to do so over-ruled by the Federal Courts.

You cannot lock up a prisoner and throw the key away, and not provide a community standard of healthcare. So get ready to pay for all the so-called protection the legislators claim they are doing for you with long sentences and very few paroled.

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Avatar for user 'undercover'

undercover | January 21, 2010 at 5:13 p.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

You people do not know what, you are talking about.Tel you have to work in a prison and hear all the lying that comes out of a inmate mouth. Talk to all the families who's lives have change cause of these so call model inmate. A model inmate is a inmate that is trying to get over on the system. If you want them out we will put a half-house next door to you norweb, rentry. They are lock up because they did wrong. They did wrong. They killed,rape.

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Avatar for user 'seasidelady'

seasidelady | January 24, 2010 at 1:08 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago


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Avatar for user 'seasidelady'

seasidelady | January 24, 2010 at 1:19 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

With the 40 million dollars a month in overtime pay alone, plus 80 - 120 thousand a year regular salaries just for the guards, we know where all the prison budget goes. Very little on the inmates in food cost, clothing, and even less on rehabilitation. It was less than 4%, now I hear, it's about 1%. Our governor says we can't afford rehabilitation!!!!!!!! Free people don't believe the prison business is very lucritive but it is. They really don't want rehabilitation; that would cut into their profits. That's why they want the inmates to stay for life, or keep coming back - then we can put the contractors and others to work building more prisons, hire more guards, keep paying the parole boards their 175 thousand per year to pretend they are having a hearing to determine if the inmate is ready to be released. No matter how well the inmate does or how many years he/she has served on life with they always find a lying excuse not to parole them. Less than 1% of lifers get paroled. But! that wasent' the sentence or the deal. The deal was, be good, rehabilitate, do your time well and get paroled!

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Avatar for user 'seasidelady'

seasidelady | January 24, 2010 at 1:21 a.m. ― 7 years, 2 months ago

The only way out of this hole California is in, is to change our sentencing laws; go back to reasonable sentences. Go back to the states matrix for the lifers. Go back to justice and not vengence!

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Avatar for user 'sarahlevi'

sarahlevi | June 18, 2011 at 4:42 p.m. ― 5 years, 9 months ago

I agree 100% here with everyone except for "undercover". I especially agree with "Justicewatchdog" & "seasidelady".

I do not believe that anyone should be sentenced to "life in prison"...for one it is a form of "Torture"...not only on the Offender but on the Offenders family, friends, & children & also on the Victims family, friends & children as well. 25yrs in prison is far enough time. Statistics have already proven by then they have rehabilitaed themselves...& chances of re-offending is so low. This will also cut down the cost of having to house, feed, clothe & medical costs on tax payers (the state of California) also.

I believe...those who are already on death row...some 700 should be killed & get her done. Stop messing around...They havealready been sentenced do it.

I believe the ones that should be it already...deport them...that will cut the population way down.

The Lower Level Offenders should be released.

& anyone who has served 25yrs already should be released.

there done...the prison population reduced...handled :) damn what's so hard about that?? lol


Sarah Levi

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Avatar for user 'sarahlevi'

sarahlevi | June 20, 2011 at 12:16 a.m. ― 5 years, 9 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Avatar for user 'janet7873'

janet7873 | August 28, 2011 at 8:32 p.m. ― 5 years, 7 months ago

I also agree with everyone here except for "undercover"...
Sarah Levi makes a very valid point - Really those reccomendations from someone NOT on the parole board make a great deal of sense. Lifers who have been locked up for 20 plus years are well aware of the mistakes they have made, and many have improved themselves in numerous ways.
What is the point of all this if no matter what they do they have NO HOPE of ever being free.
Just imagine knowing that you will never again see the ocean, or walk through the woods...and imagine knowing that for 40 plus years. See the short timers come and go and know that you will die in this place. Really, really put yourself in those shoes before you condem others to that fate.
It is true that some of these people commited murder, and that is undeniably wrong. However if they have spent years and years atoneing for that wrong and striveing to do all they can to live peacefully (as many lifers do - there is only so long you can be the tough guy ) they deserve a chance. Parole them for life, absolutely and if they do wrong again - thats it. But let them live at least part of their life in the society that is as we all know paying for this in so many ways...These are the people who can really tell others just why commiting crime is a dead end.

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