It goes without saying that our prison system, and the law enforcement and criminal justice system that accompany it, are broken, and in need of reform. Millions are wasted each year as police officers are faced with arrest quotas, often detaining young non-white men on minor offenses that often get them thrown in jail for minimum sentences of one year or more, often on shifty grounds. But now we are getting a more exact estimate of how much it costs to spend on putting someone in prison: More than it costs to put them through an Ivy League school. In New York City particularly, the cost of an inmate annually is so high, it exceeds going to most private colleges for four years.
New York City has likely the highest costs for inmates annually in the country. The city's Independent Budget Office announced that the average cost of housing an inmate in New York City, via the infamous Rikers' Island prison or otherwise, is $167,731 per year. To put that into perspective, consider this: The cost of tuition for attending Columbia University or New York University for a single year is around $45,000, New School around $40,000.
In theory, for the cost of detaining an inmate in a single in New York City, you can pay most, if not all of their tuition at a prestigious college in the same city. If you are feeling really cheap, you could cover at least three inmates' college careers including other fees at the City University of New York, assuming they stay at home (tuition and fees around $13,000 per year), or two if one of them stays in a dorm (tuition and fees around $25,000 per year), for the cost of one inmate staying in prison.
Part of the problem with the cost of inmates in New York City has much to do with the use upkeep of Rikers Island, which is the primary prison in the city. Located next to LaGuardia Airport, with its own power plant and bakery, Rikers Island costs hundreds of millions of dollars each year, contributing to New York City's annual prison budget being approximately $2 billion. However, solutions to cut down on the cost of imprisoning people in New York City, particularly through expanding jails in courthouses to be more accommodating to prisoners with lesser offenses, have been met with severe opposition from nearby residents. The stigma that once someone is in jail, they should just disappear, remains a problem.
While New York City is an outlier in terms of the cost of imprisoning someone, the cost of inmates is still an expensive endeavor: In Chicago, the cost of housing an inmate is approximately $52,925 per year, while in Los Angeles it is $47,063 per year. While much lower, you are still able to use that money to pay for tuition at those same places above. More importantly, though, this money is an average middle-class salary, a livable salary at that.
When it becomes evident that you are able to either educate someone or pay to live a normal middle-class at the same cost as imprisoning them, then we have a big problem about handling our prisoners. Something has to change.