The number of life-sentenced prisoners is increasing. In 2014, there were roughly 479,000 persons serving formal life sentences around the world, compared to 261,000 in the year 2000, representing a rise of nearly 84 per cent in 14 years. As of 2016, there were 161,957 people serving life sentences in US prisons, including 53,290 serving life without parole. Since the turn of the millennium in South Africa, there has been an 818 per cent increase in the number of prisoners serving life, which stood at 13,190 in 2014. In India, there were 71,632 prisoners serving life sentences in 2014, representing 53.7 per cent of the prison population.
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.
Formal life imprisonment exists in 183 countries. Life with parole is the most common type of life imprisonment – in 144 countries there is some provision for release. 65 countries impose life without parole sentences.
In some countries, the length of time served under a life sentence also appears to be rising. For example, in England and Wales, the average time spent in prison has more than doubled for life‑sentenced prisoners since 1979, from nine years in 1979 to 18 years and four months in 2013.
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 US. In some countries, like the US 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. In the US, there has been an increase in the use of life without parole: between 1992 and 2016, the number of persons serving life without parole increased by 328 per cent. While life without parole has been abolished in most European countries, others, such as India and China, have recently adopted it as a formal statutory sanction.
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.