For the last 46 years of his life, Charles Manson received three meals a day, medical care, and round-the-clock guards, all funded by taxpayers.
The cult leader, who was convicted of seven grisly murders committed by his flock of drugged and adoring followers, was originally sentenced to death in 1971, later commuted to life without the possibility to parole. He died Monday at age 83, an inmate of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
So how much did 46 years in prison cost the taxpayers of California? It may be impossible to calculate an exact sum, but here’s what we know:
Based on records from the CDCR, the state paid a cumulative $1.7 million per prisoner from 1971 to 2017. The figure is adjusted for inflation – and includes the entire cost of the prison system each year, divided by the inmate population.
The cost per prisoner varies greatly inmate-to-inmate. Manson was in poor health in his later years and was being held in the Protective Housing unit at California State Prison-Corcoran — a special wing that houses celebrity inmates whose safety could be compromised in the general prison.
One factor that may have reduced the cost of Manson’s prison term is the fact that he was taken off death row less than a year after being sentenced.
The cost of death penalty prosecutions is 20 times higher than life sentences, according to a 2011 study of California corrections data by Loyola Law School professor Paula Mitchell and former U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Arthur Alarcon.
Heightened security in housing units for death row inmates can cost an additional $100,000 per year, the study found. Additionally, a California law provides lifelong legal representation for these inmates. The state pays attorneys up to $300,000 for each appeal, according to 2010 data.
In comparison, the average cost per prisoner that year was about $49,000.
“The system is dysfunctional,” Mitchell said in an email.
Manson may also have been partially responsible for driving up the cost of incarceration across America, as well, Aviram Hadar, a professor of law at the University of California-Hastings tells Fortune.
In a bizarre plan to spark race wars, Manson masterminded a series of murders to be executed by his “Manson family” followers. These included the brutal 1969 killing of 8-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate in the home she shared with Hollywood director Roman Polanski. After stabbing her 16 times, one of Manson’s followers wrote “PIG” on the family’s front door with Tate’s blood. The image was stark.
“The discovery of the Manson crimes was a watershed moment in the country,” Hadar says. “It banished the sense of innocence we had about the hippie movement.”
It also helped usher in life sentences and the death penalty in California. At the time, it was common for murderers to receive 10 to 15 year sentences, says Hadar, who is working on a book about Manson’s parole hearings. This was a serious concern for the Tate family – that their daughter’s killer could be freed to roam the streets in the future.
“Life without parole did not then exist. This causes a huge outrage, because people saw Manson as evil incarnate. They did not have sympathy for the followers,” she says, noting that Americans at the time had little to no understanding of the psychology behind cults. “This was partially why, in 1972, people decide, ‘Let’s try to make the death penalty legal [again.]’ ”
And in years following, says Hadar, California used the Manson case as a reason to reinstate the death penalty.
“You see in most of the cases in favor of bringing back the death penalty and life without parole, they cited the Manson family,” she says. “These cases were used to drive home that we need to punish people who need to commit heinous crimes.”
But, by the time the death penalty was once again authorized in California, the state could not retroactively sentence Manson to capital punishment.
Still, says Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology at the University of California-Irvine, it’s key to remember that while the Manson family was everywhere in the media, killers like them aren’t representative of the average inmate.
“There aren’t too many Charles Manson’s roaming around,” Kubrin said. “One would really have to look deeper into the individual circumstances of his family friends, to explain his behavior.”