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How Much Is Life In Prison Without Parole?

Life in prison without the possibility of parole, also known as life without parole (LWOP), is the harshest sentence possible in the United States criminal justice system besides the death penalty. This severe punishment condemns convicts to die in prison with no chance of ever being released.

But how much is a life sentence really worth? What does it mean to be incarcerated for life with no hope of freedom? This article will take an in-depth look at life without parole, including the financial and human costs.

An Overview of Life Without Parole Sentences

Life without parole sentences emerged in the 1970s and 80s as some states eliminated parole and others introduced LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty. By 2020, all 50 states and the federal government allowed life without parole for some crimes.

LWOP sentences have strict requirements. Unlike regular life sentences that usually allow for parole, LWOP means inmates will never get out of prison alive. The only ways out are rare instances of overturned convictions, gubernatorial pardons, or terminal illness release.

Criminals can receive life without parole for serious violent or non-violent crimes like murder, rape, child molestation, and large-scale financial fraud. Even juvenile offenders in some states face life without parole. Harsh sentencing laws like “three strikes” mandates have increased life without parole sentences.

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The Financial Costs of Life Without Parole

Keeping criminals incarcerated for life with no parole carries huge financial costs. Taxpayers foot the bill for all expenses needed to house, feed, and provide healthcare for prisoners for decades.

The average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate varies by state from around $30,000 to $60,000 per year. Lifetime inmates incur these costs every year until they die. With U.S. life expectancy around 79, that means taxpayers pay an estimated $2.3 million to $4.6 million per LWOP inmate.

With over 53,000 prisoners serving life without parole as of 2020, the nationwide cost likely exceeds $100 billion dollars and continues growing. California alone spends over $1 billion annually on LWOP inmates.

Other financial costs of life without parole include:

  • Legal costs for trials and appeals – Estimated $500,000+ per inmate
  • Prisons require more security for lifelong prisoners
  • Healthcare costs increase with aging inmates
  • Burial costs when inmates die in prison

The financial impacts spread beyond just incarceration costs. There are economic ripple effects on families and communities too.

The Human Impact on Life Without Parole Inmates

Beyond just the huge financial costs, life without parole sentences extract major human and emotional tolls on inmates.

LWOP prisoners face unique challenges:


  • Inmates are separated from society permanently with no hope of release.
  • Strict security limits visitation and communication.
  • Social interaction is restricted to other inmates and staff.

Health Deterioration

  • Substandard healthcare and aging in prison leads to chronic conditions.
  • Mental health frequently declines being confined long-term.
  • Access to quality food, exercise, and healthcare is limited.
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Existential Crises

  • Inmates must cope with knowing they will die in prison.
  • Loss of meaning and purpose being unable to live freely.
  • High rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among LWOP inmates.

Communication Barriers

  • Prison rules and costs limit communication with family.
  • Maintaining family ties becomes harder over decades in prison.
  • Social skills atrophy being isolated from normal human interaction.


  • Inmates face increased violence, exploitation, and abuse from fellow prisoners.
  • Loss of autonomy and privacy being confined in prison long-term.
  • Limited education and rehabilitation opportunities to improve oneself.

Additionally, the families and communities of LWOP inmates suffer from loss of that person’s contributions. The full human cost is really immeasurable.

Notable Life Without Parole Cases

Here are some of the most high-profile criminals serving life without the possibility of parole in the U.S. currently:

Dzhokhar TsarnaevConvicted of 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Killed 3 people and injured hundreds. Sentenced to death, later commuted to life without parole.
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmánFormer Mexican drug cartel leader. Convicted on drug trafficking, murder, and money laundering charges. Serving life plus 30 years.
John Wayne Gacy1970s serial killer of 33 boys and men. Known as the “Killer Clown”. Executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Lee Boyd MalvoTeenage accomplice in the 2002 Washington D.C. sniper attacks that killed 10 people. Resentenced to LWOP after initial death sentence.
Ted KaczynskiThe anti-technology terrorist known as the “Unabomber” killed 3 and injured 23 from 1978-1995. Serving 8 life sentences without parole.

Frequently Asked Questions About Life Without Parole

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about life without parole sentences:

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What crimes carry life without parole sentences?

Life without parole can apply to serious violent crimes like murder, rape, child molestation, and major assaults. Non-violent crimes like large-scale financial fraud or theft can also result in LWOP. Harsh recidivism laws mandate life without parole after 3 felony convictions.

What states have abolished life without parole?

As of 2022, Alaska, Maine, and Washington D.C. do not allow life without parole sentences. Two other states, Wyoming and Kansas, have no inmates serving LWOP. 15 states have abolished LWOP for juvenile offenders.

Do life without parole inmates get visitation rights?

Yes, LWOP inmates can typically have limited visitation, but each prison sets its own rules. Visits may be restricted to immediate family, limited to a few hours per month, and require background checks or money for travel.

Can someone with life without parole get released for good behavior?

No, there is no possibility of parole or early release for any reason like good behavior. Their only chances are overturned convictions, gubernatorial pardons, or release if terminally ill.

What are conditions like in prisons for life without parole sentences?

Prison conditions vary, but LWOP inmates often face more isolation and tighter security. Privileges like recreation, entertainment, or education opportunities are usually limited compared to the general prison population. Health and mental healthcare are often substandard.


Life in prison without the possibility of parole is an extremely severe punishment reserved for society’s most serious offenders. The financial costs of incarcerating thousands of prisoners for life tallies up to billions spent on housing, security, healthcare, food, and other expenses.

But the less-quantifiable human costs of condemning people to die in prison are immense too. Inmates serving life without parole face declining physical and mental health, isolation, loss of meaning and purpose, and strained family ties. Their loved ones and communities also suffer from the permanent loss of that person.

Whether life without parole achieves enough justice, public safety, or rehabilitation to justify the immense costs remains up for debate. But there is no question that the increasing use of life without parole sentences comes at a high price both economically and ethically for America’s prison system and society as a whole.

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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