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How Much Is Life In Prison In America?

Life imprisonment is the harshest sentence one can receive in the American criminal justice system. Also known as a life sentence, life without parole, or a natural life sentence, it means someone is sentenced to spend the rest of their natural life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Life sentences have been controversial, with advocates arguing it provides justice for victims and prevents further crimes, while critics say it is cruel, costly, and eliminates the possibility of reform and rehabilitation. This article will provide an in-depth look at life sentences in America – who receives them, how they differ by state, arguments for and against, and what life is like for those serving life.

Who Receives Life Sentences?

In recent decades, life sentences have become increasingly common in America. As of 2020, there were over 50,000 people serving life sentences in state and federal prisons combined [1]. This represents over 17% of the total state and federal prison population.

The crimes that most commonly result in life sentences are:

  • Murder (65.5%)
  • Sexual assault/rape (22.8%)
  • Robbery (31.7%)
  • Aggravated assault (25.3%)
  • Kidnapping (10.4%) [2]

Men make up over 95% of those serving life sentences. The average age at time of offense is 27 years old. Over 30% were under 22 years old when they committed crimes that led to life [3].

There are racial disparities as well. Black Americans make up less than 13% of the population but nearly 47% of those serving life sentences – a rate over 5 times higher than their white counterparts [4].

How Life Sentences Differ By State

Life sentences can take several forms in the U.S. criminal justice system:

Life Without Parole

This is the most severe life sentence, where the convicted has no possibility of ever being released from prison. It essentially means dying behind bars.

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38 states and the federal government allow life without parole sentences [5]. Some states have mandatory life without parole, requiring it as the only sentence for certain crimes. Others allow more discretion in when it can be applied.

Life With the Possibility of Parole

In these states, a life sentence includes the possibility of being released on parole after a minimum time served, usually 15-30 years. If granted parole by the parole board, the prisoner will be released under supervision for the remainder of their life.

13 states and DC have abolished life without parole sentences for at least some crimes, leaving life with parole as the most severe option [6]. The time served before parole eligibility varies significantly by state.

Virtual Life Sentences

Some states give very long sentence terms that extend beyond the typical human lifespan, such as 200 or 300 year sentences. These “virtual life sentences” have effects similar to life without parole.

Arguments For Life Sentences

Justice and Punishment for Victims

Many advocates argue life sentences provide important justice and closure for victims and victims’ families, ensuring those that commit atrocious crimes are sufficiently punished. It brings a sense the scales are balanced.

Public Safety

Keeping those convicted of serious violent crimes incarcerated for life prevents them from ever harming additional victims if released. It provides safety and peace of mind.


Life sentences apply severe punishments that discourage potential criminals from committing acts that would lead to lifetime imprisonment. Harsh sentencing deters crime.


Prison inherently prevents incarcerated people from committing additional crimes in the community. Lifelong incapacitation through life sentences permanently prevents repeat offenses.


Moral retribution demands people face consequences in proportion to the severity of their wrongdoing. For the most egregious crimes, life sentences are appropriately severe punishments.

Arguments Against Life Sentences


It costs an average of $34,000 per year to house an inmate in prison [7]. Lifetime incarceration costs add up to over $1 million per prisoner. The aggregate costs to taxpayers are enormous.

Cruel & Inhumane Punishment

Locking someone in a cage for their entire life is arguably cruel, inhumane, and unethical. It deprives them of basic human freedoms and dignity. The punishment may be disproportionate to the crime.

Lack of Rehabilitation & Reform

Lifelong imprisonment excludes opportunities for rehabilitation that could allow the imprisoned to reform themselves and potentially become contributing members of society after serving their time.

Undermines Deterrence

Excessively long sentences undermine marginal deterrence. The differential deterrence between 10 years and life isn’t significant enough to deter serious crimes.

Racial & Socioeconomic Bias

Life sentences disproportionately target minorities and the poor. This compounds existing inequalities within the criminal justice system.

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What is Life Like for Those Serving Life Sentences?

Serving a life sentence means subsisting in prison for decades until death. This comes with many challenges:

  • Boredom – Life quickly falls into monotony and boredom. Days are repetitive with limited activities to fill time. Some are driven to amuse themselves through pranks, nuisance behavior or violence.
  • Loneliness – Inmates are isolated from loved ones and society. Their support systems fade as years pass. Spouses remarry; children grow distant. Decades of loneliness take psychological tolls.
  • Lack of Purpose – Without responsibilities or goals, a sense of purposelessness sets in. Motivation is sapped when there’s no future to work towards. Some find purpose in religion, education or helping fellow inmates.
  • Aging & Illness – Growing old in prison brings unique challenges. Healthcare is limited and neglected illnesses progress. Mobility declines while stairs and bunks pose increasing obstacles. Care for aging and disabled inmates is lacking.
  • Safety Concerns – Prisons can be dangerous places rife with violence. Assault, rape, extortion and other hazards disproportionately threaten older inmates. Life sentences in unsafe prisons amplify fears.
  • Harsher Sentencing – ‘Three strike’ laws and harsh sentencing for crimes committed in prison mean life prisoners face additional sentences if convicted of further offenses while incarcerated. More time keeps getting added to original life sentences.

Serving a life sentence tests resilience and adaptability as inmates face challenges not experienced by the general population. Support systems to help prisoners successfully cope are often inadequate in the American prison system.

Sample Case Studies of Criminals Serving Life Sentences

Below are examples of five notorious American criminals currently serving life sentences for their crimes:

Charles Manson

  • Leader of murderous cult “The Family”
  • Orchestrated brutal 1969 murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and 6 others
  • Originally sentenced to death, but ruling was commuted to life with parole after CA abolished death penalty
  • Denied parole 12 times and died in prison in 2017 at age 83

Dennis Rader – “BTK Killer”

  • Serial killer who murdered 10 people in Kansas between 1974-1991
  • Gave himself the moniker “BTK” – for “bind, torture, kill”
  • Sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences in 2005, ensuring he has no chance of parole or release

Dylann Roof

  • White supremacist who in 2015 shot to death 9 African Americans during Bible study at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina
  • First federal hate crime defendant to receive death penalty – later commuted to life without parole
  • Pled guilty to state murder charges resulting in 9 consecutive life sentences

Larry Nassar

  • Former USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of young female athletes
  • Possessed tens of thousands of images of child pornography along with his sexual assaults
  • Sentenced to 40-175 years by Michigan judge who said “I’ve just signed your death warrant”
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Ted Kaczynski – “The Unabomber”

  • Mathematics prodigy turned recluse who killed 3 and injured 23 though mail bombs over 18 year span
  • Motivated by opposition to modern technology – targeted academics, airlines, and others
  • Avoided death penalty by pleading guilty in 1998, sentenced to 8 life sentences with no parole

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to imprison someone for life?

The average cost to imprison an inmate for one year is around $34,000. Lifetime incarceration costs over $1 million per inmate. Total costs to taxpayers for all life sentences are in the tens of billions.

What are common last meal requests for death row inmates?

Popular last meal requests before execution include hamburgers, pizza, fried chicken, ice cream, and soda. Some request expensive lobster tails or filet mignon. Condemned inmates are given $20-50 limits in most states.

What is the difference between life imprisonment and a life sentence?

Life imprisonment and life sentences are interchangeable terms referring to incarceration lasting until the convict’s natural death. This is imposed with or without the possibility of parole after a minimum time served.

Can someone with a life sentence ever get out of prison?

In states with life without parole, there is no possibility of release except through rare pardon or commutation by the governor or president. In states with life with parole, release is possible if granted parole by the parole board after serving minimum time. Around 1 in 6 lifers are eventually paroled.

What happens when someone with a life sentence gets too old and sick?

Prisons are poorly equipped to care for aging and dying inmates. Some receive compassionate release to hospice care on a case-by-case basis. But many sick, elderly lifers simply remain in prison healthcare units until they pass away.


Life sentences remain controversial yet prominent fixtures of the American criminal justice system. Tens of thousands are currently serving life behind bars – some without any hope of release before death. Debates continue around their ethics, costs, and impacts on society. But for now, life in prison remains the ultimate punishment for the most serious offenders in America.

The decades of monotonous, isolated existence endured by lifers raises questions about proportionality, humanity, and rehabilitation. But from a justice and public safety perspective, permanent incapacitation continues to be viewed as warranted in cases of horrific, irredeemable crimes. America’s use of life imprisonment is likely to remain robust even as reform efforts modulate other aspects of the justice system and mass incarceration.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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