Most people have heard the term “life behind bars,” but not everyone understands the psychological toll this sentencing takes on a person. When someone is sentenced to life in prison, it changes the way they define the word “life.”
Many prisoners simply give up; they contemplate or even attempt suicide, unable to comprehend the idea of living the rest of their days incarcerated. Others find solace in drugs, religion, imaginary friends, danger, or crime inside their prison to pass the time.
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And for many of these inmates, not only were they sentenced to life in prison, but they also don’t qualify for parole. Essentially it means there is absolutely no way out unless they’re in a body bag. One inmate, Quentin Jones, called it “death by incarceration.”
This reality is exceptionally difficult for anyone to understand, but the truth is that in the United States, it is extremely common practice. In fact, today, more than 203,000 Americans are serving life sentences. That means 15% of the country’s incarcerated will never be released from prison.
In comparison, there are only 70 people serving life without parole within the 95,000 people imprisoned in the United Kingdom. And 83% of all people on Earth who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole are in the United States.
After reading these statistics, it’s difficult not to wonder why the numbers are so incredibly high in the United States compared to every other country. The truth is that the number of people serving life without parole grew almost exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s after several states eliminated the death penalty, but many are arguing that this system is no longer the best option.
The advocacy group The Sentencing Project claims that the idea of sentencing someone to life in prison without parole is not only far too harsh, but it’s also impractical and unhelpful. They argue that life without parole is actually a worse fate for these people than death row as they are forced to live their lives with extreme depression knowing they will never be free again. Many also agree that the idea of paying for hundreds of thousands of people to live in the prison system for life is wildly and inappropriately expensive for the taxpayer.
Therefore, The Sentencing Project argues, that a better system would cap sentences at 20 years, with a few exceptions to be decided by the courts. However, this idea has faced an immense amount of backlash from other groups, such as the National Center for Victims of Crime which state that a 20-year maximum is not nearly enough for some of the violent crimes committed.
These groups, as well as others, are spending a considerable amount of time and effort in attempting to assess and possibly reorganize the American prison system. And while not everyone agrees on what needs to happen next, almost everyone acknowledges that the current system is not working as well as it should.