Think College Is Expensive, Try Paying For Prison


Anyone who has ever lived in New York City knows that, to quote aspiring politician and New York Gubernatorial Candidate Jimmy McMillian, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” but experts say that alone doesn’t explain a recent report on the city’s annual cost per inmate. $167,731, that is how much it cost last year to house the inmates of New York with a big part of it due to New York’s most notorious lockup, Rikers Island, and the costs that go along with staffing, maintaining and securing a facility that is literally an island unto itself.

The city’s Independent Budget Office annual figure of $167,731 — which equates to about $460 per day for the 12,287 average daily New York City inmates last year — was based on about $2 billion in total operating expenses for the Department of Correction, which included salaries and benefits for staff, judgments and claims as well as debt service for jail construction and repairs. Rikers itself has some unique expenses which include $30.3 million annually  on transportation costs alone, running three bus services that usher inmates to and from court throughout the five boroughs, staff from a central parking lot to Rikers jails and visitors to and around the island. 

Just to put these figures in to some perspective, Los Angeles spent $128.94 a day, or $47,063 a year, for 17,400 inmates in fiscal year 2011-12, its sheriff’s office said. Chicago spent $145 a day, or $52,925 a year, for 13,200 inmates in 2010, the most recent figures available from that county’s sheriff’s office.

What’s the solution? According to Martin F. Horn, who in 2009 resigned as the city’s correction commissioner, a way to bring down the costs would be to replace Rikers Island with more robust jails next door to courthouses. But his attempts to do that failed in part because of political opposition from residential areas near courthouses in Brooklyn, Manhattan and elsewhere. “My point is: Have you seen a whole lot of outcry on this? Why doesn’t anything happen?” Horn said of the $167,731 annual figure. “Because nobody cares.” “That’s the reason we have Rikers Island,” he said. “We want these guys put away out of public view.”

Experts note that New York’s high annual price tag is deceiving because it reflects considerable pensions and salary responsibilities, debt service and the expensive fixed costs. The DOC says 86 percent of its operating costs go for staff wages. But maybe that is the problem.

Nick Freudenberg, a public health professor at Hunter College, said the latest city figures show that declining incarceration rates haven’t translated into cost savings. In 2001, when the city had 14,490 inmates, the full cost of incarcerating one inmate at Rikers Island for a year was $92,500, or about $122,155 adjusted for today’s dollars — that means the city spent $45,576 more in 2012 than it did 11 years ago. “To my mind, the main policy question is: How could we be spending this money better?” Freudenberg said. “What would be a better return on that investment?”

Another issue helping keep cost high is the fact that the accused have to be detained so long while awaiting trial. The average length of stay for detainees was 53 days while the sentenced inmates received 38.6 days on average. Not only is this costing the city money, but it may just be a growing miscarriage of justice. Either way, “The Rent is Still Too Damn High.”



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