The number of life-sentenced prisoners is increasing. In the US, for example, the number of life-sentenced prisoners increased from nearly 70,000 prisoners in 1992 to 128,000 in 2003. As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences in US prisons, including 53,290 serving life without parole. In South Africa, the number of prisoners serving life jumped from 443 in 1995 to 12,223 in 2014. In India, by the end of 2013 there were 70,636 prisoners serving life sentences, including 2,970 women.
Life imprisonment varies widely between countries. It can mean imprisonment until (natural) death, with no possibility of release; a life sentence for a minimum number of years, after which the prisoner may be considered for release, but may never be granted release; and a life or long-term sentence for a determinate number of years, after which the prisoner is released either with or without further restrictions.
In some countries, the length of time served under a life sentence also appears to be rising. For those released from a mandatory life sentence in England and Wales in 2012, for example, the average time they had served was 16 years (compared to 13 years in 1999), but the average tariff imposed on mandatory lifers sentenced in 2012 was 20.2 years.
Life without parole is found in a number of states and in all regions of the world, for example in Bulgaria, England and Wales, Estonia, Kenya, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and the USA. In some countries, like the USA and Turkey, there may be no possibility of release under any circumstance. In some, such as Vietnam, amnesties are usually granted after a prisoner has served 20 to 30 years, and in others – for example, Bulgaria and Sweden – prisoners can petition the government for a pardon.
Life-sentenced prisoners often experience differential treatment and worse conditions of detention than other categories of prisoners. This includes: solitary confinement or semi-isolation for long and indeterminate periods of time; inadequate living facilities; imprisonment under a high-security regime based on the nature of the sentence rather than on an individual risk assessment; excessive use of handcuffing or other disciplinary measures; limited visitation entitlements; and exclusion from education and rehabilitation programmes.
Countries that abolish the death penalty tend to not only replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without parole, but at the same time widen the array of offences which carry this maximum sentence.
Despite increased recognition of human rights concerns around the use of life imprisonment, there are few international standards which regulate its use. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) prohibits the application of life imprisonment without parole to juveniles below the age of 18. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that the purpose of the prison system is the ‘reformation and social rehabilitation’ of prisoners, indicating that every prisoner should have the opportunity to be rehabilitated back into society and lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives. Even under the Rome Statute, which provides for the gravest offences within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court– war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – life sentences must be reviewed after 25 years.