Incredibly, a first-ever study by New York City's Independent Budget Office found that Big Apple taxpayers spend $167,731 per year per inmate locked in prison.
That's more than the price of four years of tuition at an expensive Ivy League university like Harvard.
The huge cost doesn't count the taxpayer expense of courts, prosecutors, police, public defenders and the like. It's just the cost of building, staffing and operating overcrowded lockups of steel cages.
"The numbers provide a troubling statistical portrait of the more than 12,000 people in our city jails on a typical day last year, coming at a significant fiscal cost to the city and no doubt great social cost to families and communities," said budget researcher Doug Turetsky.
Michael Jacobson, former city correction commissioner, added: "Jail is an expensive proposition, which is why you want to use it only when you have to use it." He pointed out that New York's prison population has dropped by half since the early 1990s, when crack cocaine was rampant. Since then, the city has focused on alternative sentencing.
Race is a major factor: A dismaying 57 percent of New York's inmates are black, 33 percent Hispanic and 7 percent white. This implies that whites may get most benefit from alternative sentences that keep them out of cells.
Imprisonment in America is vastly worse than in other modern democracies. For example, the United States locks up 743 people per 100,000 population -- while Britain jails only 155 and Norway only 71.
Does this mean that Americans are 10 times more criminal than Norwegians? Of course not. It means that America has a harsh, judgmental, "tough-on-crime" mentality, perhaps inherited from Puritan times. U.S. politicians demand longer sentences, which boosts the number of inmates held at any particular time.
"At year-end 2007, the United States had less than 5 percent of the world's population and 23.4 percent of the world's prison and jail population," one report says.
Radical crusader Angela Davis coined the phrase "prison-industrial complex" to describe the large economic sector spawning jobs and prosperity from locking Americans in cells. A couple of years ago, an Ohio State University professor wrote The New Jim Crow asserting that America's imprisonment is a racist system destroying multitudes of black men and keeping their families in poverty.It's profoundly wrong to spend $167,731 a year to lock each prisoner in a cage, when other modern nations don't inflict such cost on themselves.