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NYC inmate almost as costly as Ivy League tuition

By Jake Pearson

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 07:32 a.m. HST, Sep 30, 2013

NEW YORK >> New York is indeed an expensive place, but experts say that alone doesn't explain a recent report that found the city's annual cost per inmate was $167,731 last year -- nearly as much as it costs to pay for four years of tuition at an Ivy League university.

They say a big part of it is 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.

"Other cities don't have Rikers Island," said Martin F. Horn, who in 2009 resigned as the city's correction commissioner, noting that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent a year to run the 400-acre island in the East River next to the runways of LaGuardia Airport that has 10 jail facilities, thousands of staff and its own power plant and bakery.

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.

But there are particularly expensive costs associated with Rikers.

The department says it spends $30.3 million annually alone on transportation costs, 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. There were 261,158 inmates delivered to court last year.

A way to bring down the costs, Horn has long said, 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."

New York's annual costs dwarf the annual per-inmate costs in other big cities. 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. Those costs included debt-service and fringe benefits.

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.

New York's system differs from other cities in some other costly ways -- it employs 9,000 relatively well-paid, unionized correction officers, for example, and is required by law to provide certain services to inmates, including high quality medical care within 24 hours of incarceration.

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 contributing factor to the inmate price tag is the length of stay for prisoners in New York's criminal justice system. Some inmates have waited years in city jails to see trial. The DOC said in 2012 that the average length of stay for detainees was 53 days and 38.6 days for sentenced inmates.

"Not only is that a miscarriage of justice, it affects your operations," said Michael Jacobson, a former commissioner of the city's Department of Correction and probation who serves as director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. "You want to save big money? Take a quarter out just by improving the process they go through when they're in the system."

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serious wrote:
NY is Democratic, therefore they do have the inflated union benefits and wages. Like Hawaii, some day they will have to belly up to the bar just like Detroit.
on September 30,2013 | 05:48AM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
With such an expense, it is amazing that New York even stays afloat. Hawaii with it's union influence is also one that will see more tax increases to keep up with the constantly increasing wages and benefits of union labor. This while the people struggle to keep food on the table. As the wages of union labor constantly go up, the people's own wages have seen reduction. The result, more taxes which results in the cannibalizing of our tax payers in order to keep up with union demands. Eventually, people will find that it is too expensive to pay their public servants as the public servants have become the masters.
on September 30,2013 | 08:05AM
cojef wrote:
Costs to keep the prisoners behind bars are really expensive considering that it averages out on an annual basis at $167,731 for Rikkers for 12,287 inmates, Los Angeles at $47,063 for 17,400, and Chicago at $52,295 for 13,200. Guess Rikkers cost seem high, as it provides first class medical care and staffed by 9,000 employees. When the figures are examined closely the number of inmates/staff ratio seems overly high even in a peak year as presented close to 15,000 inmates, 9 employees to baby sit 15 inmates. Of course, since Rikkers is the most expensive and supposedly provides the best, gym and recreational equipment, as well a entertainment implements, such large screen, high definition TV and likes. Oh, forgot, the most higly unionized staff.
on September 30,2013 | 08:22AM
boshio wrote:
U.S prisons should be in Mongolia, China, where the land is so vast and flat , there is no need for fences even. All prisoners can play "dead crickets" during the day for their meals.
on September 30,2013 | 09:19AM
AhiPoke wrote:
Eliminating or reducing the penalties for drug related "crime" would save our country billions of dollars. I'm not a user but I think most drug related crimes are ridiculous and the laws have created, not reduced, a significant amount of violence. Look at what's happening in Mexico, much of it due to American drug use.
on September 30,2013 | 10:08AM
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