Hidden Costs: April’s Story

This series, “The Hidden Costs of Incarceration”, is being written in the context of the alarming increase in incarceration rates in America, which have grown sevenfold in the past 40 years. Currently one out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated, resulting in 2.2 million prisoners. This prison boom has led to escalating costs, about $60 billion annually on state and federal prisons, up from $12 billion 20 years ago.[1]

“No other country in the world imprisons its citizen like we do in the United States”, say Craig Haney, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at the University of California.[2] Indeed, the U.S. is the world leader in incarceration. Currently 707 per 100,000 persons are incarcerated, compared with 70-150 persons per 100,000 in European countries.[2]

$80 billion is frequently cited as the annual cost of incarceration in the U.S., but this ignores the financial and social costs incurred outside of the correctional system.

“The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” a 2016 study at Washington University in St. Louis, found that for every dollar spent by corrections, another $10 is generated in social costs resulting from incarceration. These costs fall on families and children who have committed no crime, as well as on communities. This results in an aggregate burden of $1.2 trillion due to incarceration.[3]

Our hope is that some stories of Harrisonburg residents affected by incarceration will open our eyes to how these financial and social costs affect them and all of us.

April Graves’ story

April is a white middle-aged grandmother, heartbroken by the experience of watching her bi-racial daughter, “Erin”, (now age 44) go through the prison system. Over the past 17 years, April has served time totalling almost 8 years on drug related charges, in and out of 5 prisons and 4 jails.

The good news is that Erin has just completed her most recent 21/2 year term and was released in May, 2017. What gives April hope is that this time her daughter has been released into “Friends of Guesthouse,” a re-entry program for women with a good history of rehabilitating women with drug addictions. Erin is also more emotionally stable now due to receiving prescription drugs for her mental health issues. So April is more optimistic about Erin’s long term stability as she re-enters society this time.

What if Erin had received drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration at her initial sentencing, or at one of her subsequent trials? Why is incarceration so often the first response to drug charges? In 2016 Senator Cory Booker correlated the war on drugs with the 500% increase of incarceration rates in the past 40 years, declaring that this “war” is “disproportionately affecting poor and disproportionately affecting minorities.”[4]

One might also ask whether Erin was more likely doomed to incarceration by being convicted of a drug charge in Virginia, since it appears that state officials are sometimes motivated by law enforcement quotas.[5]

If alternatives, other than incarceration had been found, what financial and social costs might have been avoided?

An obvious cost are the wages Erin lost during her 8 years in prison: 8 X $33,000 {2014} = $264,000. And likely her lifetime earnings will also be affected; the W.U. study found that lifetime earnings following incarceration are reduced by 10-40%.

Childcare costs provided by two grandmothers could have totalled as much as $120,000 (8 years x 3 children x $5,000 {estimated annual cost for child care for one school age child}. One grandson required child care at age two, necessitating even higher costs. Other costs covered would have included the childrens’ food, clothes, and school expenses. If there had been no compassionate grandmothers, these children likely would have been picked up by child welfare, costing the state $7,728 per child, or roughly $278,208 (12 years x 3 children x $7,728). Homelessness for the children could also have been a consequence.

Erin’s grandmother covered her costs while inside: supplemental nutritional food (one institution served bad meat and moldy bread), toiletries (sold in institutional canteens but at inflated prices), phone calls, and rent (Rockingham County jail @ $1 a day, Middle River Regional Jail @ $3 a day).

Grandmother’s expenses for visits included gas and time spent on the road. April currently visits one grandson quarterly at Pocahontas Correctional Center, a four hour drive from Harrisonburg.

The stigma against persons with a criminal history makes the re-entry process after prison more difficult. Multiple re-entry periods for Erin, when she remained dependent on April’s assistance before stabilizing enough to regain employment, would have resulted in more costs: food, housing, transportation, child care.

Other financial costs that were likely absorbed by someone due to Erin’s multiple transitions are moving costs, eviction costs, and interest and financial fees on unpaid debts.

With careful itemizing and research, one might be able to put dollar figures on these incurred costs, which, in Erin’s case, were primarily assumed by family members. For many incarcerated persons, however, these financial costs would likely fall on the public.

The socials costs resulting from Erin’s incarceration are less tangible, but result in even more grievous, long term consequences.

The W. U. study cites the criminogenic effects of prison, which reinforce maladaptive behaviour and survival strategies that carry over into families and the community. Erin likely learned behaviour while inside that affected her coping skills in society and her ability to provide healthy role modeling for her family. The W.U. study identifies numerous effects, including the following:

  1. Persons with a criminal history are 18-25 times more likely to commit a future crime. With Erin, we certainly see this repetitive pattern of reoffending.
  2. Children of incarcerated persons receive less education (10 % are high school dropouts) which results in lower incomes as adults.[6] (Erin’s sons had their education terminated when they were disallowed from returning to their previous high school after being charged with gang-related charges).
  3. Children of incarcerated parents are five times more likely to go to prison. Such was the case with Erin’s family. All of her three sons have served time in DJJ (Department of Juvenile Justice) facilities for delinquent acts, one son’s term extended into an adult facility. One was 10 when he was charged with arson for a fire in the neighbourhood, accidently caused by four neighbourhood boys. Erin’s son, however, was the only one charged, which raises other questions, given that her son was the only black boy among the four.[7]
  4. Sixty-six percent of incarcerated persons and family members report experiencing detrimental mental health effects. While in prison, Erin suffered numerous traumatic events, including disrespect from staff. Erin was hit by a guard with a metal rod, and ignored by a prison official, who refused to write up an injury she received due to a shower accident, thus receiving no medical help.

This is April’s story, one that is multiplied many times in other families, but challenging us to reflect on the effects of mass incarceration in our nation.


  1. Costs of incarceration in the U.S more than $1 trillion, The Source
  2. Incarceration Nation, October, 2014, APA
  3. The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S., Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, Washington University in St. Louis, July, 2016
  4. Booker said the 40-year war on drugs led to “a 500 percent increase in incarceration in our country, disproportionately affecting poor and disproportionately affecting minorities.”

    “Booker has his numbers right, looking at incarcerated population growth over the past 40 years. It’s hard to conclusively attribute the rapid rise to the war on drugs, but many experts believe that it is a major factor, if not the primary factor. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the prison population, and some slightly dated research indicates poor people are, as well. Evidence seems to show that black people are more likely to be arrested for drug crime than white people, despite being equally likely to use and less likely to sell drugs.” Politifact, 2016

  5. Virginia had the 5th-lowest and 8th-lowest violent and property crime rates, respectively, in the U.S. in 2011, but had the 13th-highest incarceration rates and 11th-highest prison costs. JPI attributed the contradictory data to law enforcement arrest quotas—which help secure federal and state police funding—that now depend on ‘low-level, nonviolent drug violations,’ rather than serious crimes. . . .Criminalizing drug use ‘is an ineffective way of addressing the potential health needs of the arrested people’”, the report said. “Jails and prisons, particularly crowded ones, provide very little treatment or re-entry preparation for people who may have substance abuse disorders.” Report: Virginia’s Prisons, Jail Overburdened by Nonviolent Drug Offenders”, Prison Legal News, August 10, 2016.
  6. “High school dropouts often prematurely enter the work force and can expect to have lower lifetime incomes than high school graduates (-$331,000), and considerably lower lifetime incomes when compared to college graduates (-$1,295,000)”. Washington University Study
  7. “While black youth make up approximately 20 percent of Virginia’s youth population, they account for more than 50 percent of all intakes, and more than 70 percent of our direct care admissions.” Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, Director’s Message, April 11, 2017

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