Farms on Prisons Will Reduce National Prison Budget

ByKyleen Breslin

Requiring all prisons to have self-sustaining farms by 2040 would reduce the U.S. prison budget. 

In 2011, Congress allocated $6.8 billion to the Bureau of Prisons. A budget of this size is justified by the need for larger buildings, a trained staff, and more secure facilities. Yet the costs associated with the everyday lives of inmates are often overlooked. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the cost of housing an inmate in 2010 was $53.34 per day. Other states, such as South Carolina, estimate inmate costs to be roughly $70 a day.  

There are 2 million inmates in the United States, whose housing costs a minimum of $106,680,000 per day. Of this daily total, 29% is spent on food.  Changing the way prisoners are fed could dramatically reduce these costs. Enacting a policy that requires state or federally run prisons to provide their own food through self-sufficient farms could decrease prison spending by $1.7 billion per year. Requiring prisons to subsist on locally grown natural foods would also provide them with the opportunity to improve the nutritional value of the food they serve. 

Despite the high cost of the prison nourishment service, the food served to inmates is unhealthy and often inedible. Implementing a farming program would increase the health of inmates and raise awareness about the importance of good nutrition. It would also decrease the money spent on prison medical services by increasing the overall health of inmates. The malnourishment of inmates has been federally recognized, but no plausible reforms have been proposed. In the 1978 case Hutto v. Finney, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was cruel for Arkansas prisons to serve a food substitute known as “grue,” but replacing “grue” meant spending more money on food. Although the Arkansas judge ruled that eating “grue” could cause prisoners harm, no large-scale change was implemented. In 2008, Vermont inmates filed a class action lawsuit against prisons, saying that they were being served meals “so awful, they’d rather go hungry than eat.” Court cases like these acknowledge that prison food is harmful to the health of inmates. 


In order to implement a prison farm system, prisons would need to purchase an initial supply of livestock, seeds, and farming equipment. This initial investment would not only provide long-term viability for a prison farm program but would also give funds to struggling farmers and agricultural suppliers. The program would soon pay for itself, since prisons would no longer have to rely on government-subsidized funds for food. According to a video released by the farming organization The Hand That Feeds U.S., a large commercial grade farm would need to allocate $3 million dollars for start up costs, including land, equipment, and livestock.  A prison with 300 inmates spends an average of $3 million every two years on food for prisoners, so a farm would quickly pay for itself. Additionally, since most prisons are already located in remote areas, they would be able to purchase the property necessary for a farm large enough to sustain a prison population. Some private prisons in the United States have implemented such programs. For instance, the Wateree River Correctional Institution in South Carolina operates a 7,000 acre farm. These three correctional facility farms in South Carolina save taxpayers $400,000 a year.  

Next Steps 

Introducing a self-sufficient prison farm initiative on a national level will take years of work and advocating, but introducing community-level measures can create an immediate and powerful impact. A partnership between prisons and local 4H clubs could provide a viable means of making a change. Members of agriculturally minded organizations like The Hand That Feeds U.S. can identify volunteers on the local level who are willing to contact prison supervisors and help them get started with the process of creating a farm. Also, writing grants to environmental organizations looking to increase localized food consumption can provide a financial basis for this movement.