The cost of incarceration

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
July 7, 2022

Running a prison in any country is very costly, but of course it costs more in some countries than in others. In a world with an ever-expanding prison population, it is key to look at the financial aspect of imprisoning people to understand where and how such money is being spent to incarcerate more and more people every year. This article will specifically look at the cost of imprisoning someone in the UK but will also draw comparison with other countries, furthermore looking at some of their offending rates as part of a cost benefit overview. However, it is important to recognise that spending on prisons in different countries is relative to a number of individual factors such as, total prison population and a countries wealth, etc.

The United Kingdom spent an approximate total of 5.36 billion GBP on its prison system in 2020/21. The total average cost per prison place in England and Wales in 2019/20 was £44.6k. This is a significant amount of taxpayer’s money being used to incarcerate people in a country with a proven 25.6% reoffending rate in 2020/21. It is also important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic, must have had an impact on reoffending rates, almost certainly making them lower. Other sources show that in the UK, 75% of ex-prisoners reoffend within 9 years of release. [4]  With this kind of rate of reoffending in the2020-21 period alone, and the 9 year reoffending rate, the total expenditure doesn’t seem so significant, in fact it doesn’t seem like enough is being spent to rehabilitate a prisoner in order to help lower reoffending rates and help people to turn away from reoffending.

However, spending more money doesn’t exclusively mean that rates of reoffending will decrease, as is the case with the USA. It is estimated that the U.S spend around 80.7billion dollars a year on its public prisons (around 67 billion GBP). However, the U.S has the highest prison population in the world, so total expenditure is expected to be significantly higher than the UK. The U.S also has one of the highest rates of reoffending in the world. According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 44 percent of criminals who are released are rearrested and returned to prison within one year. That is a staggering amount of people reoffending within a one-year period, regardless of the relative factors at play.

A country with a similar prison population to that of the UK is Poland. What is not so similar about Poland’s prison system is expenditure. It is estimated that Poland spends about 9,819 euros per prisoner, per year (around 8,430 GBP). Poland’s five-year reoffending rate sits at 25.5%, similar to the UK’s one year reoffending rate. It is clear that the UK seem to spend a fair amount of money on imprisoning people, with not much success in rehabilitating their mindset and reducing reoffending and in a country with so many resources, it seems unfathomable.

The UK and other countries alike could learn a lot from Norway, a country famed for its prison system and humane approach to incarceration, reintegration and rehabilitation. A particular prison in Norway, known as Halden, spends roughly £98,000 per year, per prisoner and the two-year reoffending rate for the entirety of Norway is one of the lowest on record at 20%. Their approach has been called the ‘normality principle’, which is essentially the principle of providing the prisoners with a feeling of normality compared with life outside of prison and it seems to be working. Refining how prison expenditure is used will be instrumental in reducing the global prison population and helping ex-prisoners to change their mindset and I believe that more money could and should be spent in order to ensure permanent and positive change.

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