Prison is not only counter-productive, it’s also expensive. In Rhode Island, it costs $62,168 a year for every inmate at the ACI, according to figures provided by the state Department of Corrections, or $58,990 without administrative and capital costs.
To put that number in perspective, it costs $25,184 to do a year at the University of Rhode Island ($41,174 for out-of-staters) and a year-long stint at Brown University costs $68,106. So a year in the ACI is still cheaper than a year at an Ivy League school, but two in-state students could live and learn at URI for less, with almost enough left over for a third to matriculate.
Rhode Island is one of 11 states that spends more on prisons than it does on higher education, and the Ocean State spends six times more on prisons than it does public assistance.
While Rhode Island has cut public assistance and funding for higher education in recent years, we’ve increased spending on prisons. According to a 2014 study on state prison costs by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, prison costs in Rhode Island rose from 3.3 percent of the state budget in 1986 to 5.7 percent of the state budget in 2013. The Department of Corrections budget increased by more than $45 million during the past decade, according to internal numbers – from $161 million in 2006 to $206 million in 2016.
The increase followed a national trend of jailing more people for longer sentences, according to the CBPP report. “Most states’ prison populations are at historic highs after decades of extraordinary growth,” it says. “State incarceration rates have risen primarily because states are sending a much larger share of offenders to prison and keeping them there longer.
From 1978 to 2013, according to CBPP report, the prison population in Rhode Island quadrupled, from 529 inmates to 2,039. In 2016, the average daily prison population in Rhode Island was 3,068.
Of the $206 million Rhode Island spends on the prisons, “custody and security” accounts for 64 percent of it, or $130 million, according to this Department of Corrections fact sheet. Health care costs $21 million and accounts for 11 percent of prison spending; food and maintenance account for 9% and cost $17 million. Central management costs $9 million a year and represents 4 percent of total prison spending.
A 2012 state comparison of prison costs by the Vera Institute concluded Rhode Island has the fifth highest per-inmate cost in the nation, preceded by Vermont ($49,502); Connecticut ($50,262); New Jersey ($54,865); and New York ($60,076). Massachusetts wasn’t included in the analysis. Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma each spend less than $20,000 per inmate.
Little wonder then why conservative groups are joining the left in calling for criminal justice reform in Rhode Island.