According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.3 million people are held behind bars in the United States every year at the cost of more than $80 billion. However, experts say that figure understates the financial burden faced by prisoners and their loved ones, which is disproportionately burdened by women.
To better understand incarceration's hidden costs, The Marshall Project asked people to document their spending and collected data from nearly 200 people. In addition to paying for health care, personal hygiene items, phone calls, and other forms of communication, many families spend hundreds of dollars monthly to feed, clothe, and stay in touch with someone behind bars.
"I think the biggest misconception that people have about prison is that 'the state' pays for everything," wrote Connie Martin, 50, from Hazel Park, Michigan. "No one realizes that it's the friends and families of loved ones that pay."
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, families spend $2.9 billion a year on commissaries, phone calls, and other expenses related to mass incarceration. A family member may also be required to pay court fees, restitution, or fines when incarcerated.
The average family is estimated to pay roughly $13,000 in fines and fees, according to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design.
Additionally, many prisons and jails nationwide have increasingly outsourced many basic functions of running a prison or jail to private companies, increasing families' costs. According to Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, the trend has accelerated since the 2008 recession as state legislatures have sought ways to reduce incarceration costs. "Public prisons are public only by name," she said. "These days, you pay for everything in prison."
It's unjust and unconscionable that family members of incarcerated people are burdened with the financial responsibility of supporting the prison system and caring for their loved ones behind bars. This responsibility rightfully belongs to the state.
Source: The Marshall Project