As Washington’s prison population shrank, the cost of incarceration went up

By: Jeanie Lindsay, Northwest News Network

Keeping people in Washington’s prisons has gotten more expensive in recent years. The state is one of several where costs per prisoner have climbed as overall prison populations decline.

Washington recently closed a prison to save money, but officials say rising prices for essentials, as well as facility maintenance, are contributing to the ballooning price of keeping people locked up.

In 2019, the average price of incarcerating one person was around $41,232 per year. Fast forward to 2022 – the most recent year for which data is available – and the cost shot up to roughly $63,626. At the same time, the state’s prison population dropped by more than 4,000 people, many of whom were released because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Department of Corrections’ Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy said food, health care, and facility maintenance costs are major factors contributing to rising costs.

“But that depends on the facility that you live in. Some facilities are much more expensive, and some facilities – the newer facilities – are much less expensive,” Murphy said. He also notes that more people coming into state prisons have increasingly urgent and complex health care needs, including substance use disorder.

The department’s data shows it spent almost $800 million on its prisons in 2022, compared to nearly $726 million in 2019.

A handful of states are dealing with a similar trend of rising costs and declining prisoner populations, according to Chris Henrichson, director of the data team with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for ending mass incarceration. CaliforniaNew York, and Massachusettsare among those states.

“As prison populations decline, the only way that costs per incarcerated person remain stable is if the costs of the total system decline at the same pace,” Henrichson says. “It takes time for states to close prisons.” He added that even when a prison closes, staff positions don’t necessarily disappear – they can move to other locations.

Last fall, in an attempt to cut costs, Washington’s prison department closed the Larch Corrections Center in the state’s southwest. A majority of the staff laid off from Larch took jobs at other prisons or state agencies, according to the department.

The state still has not decided what to do with the empty Larch facility. Officials have said previously the prison could reopen if the need arises. Lawmakers set aside almost $300,000 in the state’s budget to pay for a task force that will make recommendations by next summer on what to do with the facility.

Despite the major drop in prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic, state data shows the number of people in state prisons is now starting to go back up. According to the state, there were 13,972 people in Washington’s prisons at the end of 2023.