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How Much is Life in Prison?

Life in prison is one of the harshest sentences that can be handed down in the criminal justice system. But what exactly does “life in prison” mean? How is it different from other types of sentences? This article will provide a comprehensive overview of life sentences, looking at the meaning, implications, and differences between types of life sentences. Key details on parole eligibility, chances of release, and real-world costs and stats will also be covered. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of this severe punishment and what it truly signifies.

Defining a Life Sentence

A life sentence is exactly what it sounds like – incarceration in a state or federal prison for the remainder of the offender’s life. However, there are a few key things to understand:

No Set Number of Years

There is no definite number of years attached to a life sentence. It does not automatically mean 25 years, for example. A life sentence means imprisonment until death with very limited chances of being released.

Possibility of Parole

In many cases, a life sentence includes the possibility of parole after a minimum time served. This means the offender may be able to leave prison after serving part of the sentence. More details on parole eligibility are covered later.

Types of Life Sentences

There are several types of life sentences, each with slightly different implications for how long the offender will stay in prison. Key types include:

  • Life without parole (LWOP) – No possibility of parole; will spend entire life in prison.
  • Life with parole – Possibility of parole after minimum time served.
  • Natural life – Similar to LWOP; no or very limited parole.
  • Determinate life sentence – Fixed term of years instead of parole possibility.
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Comparison to Other Sentences

To fully understand life sentences, it helps to compare them to other types of prison sentences:

Definite Sentence

This is a fixed sentence with a set number of years, such as a 5 or 20 year sentence. The offender will serve this time and then be released (unless more crimes committed in prison).

Minimum Sentence

This specifies the minimum number of years that must be served before parole eligibility. For example, a 15 year minimum means parole cannot be granted before 15 years served.

Life sentences are very different since there is no fixed end date when freedom is regained. The uncertainty of how long incarceration will last is part of what makes these sentences so severe.

Parole Eligibility in Life Sentences

For life sentences that allow for the possibility of parole, parole eligibility is determined by the minimum time that must be served before going through the parole process. Key facts:

  • Minimums range from 15 to 30+ years for different crimes and states.
  • Eligibility does not mean parole will be granted; that depends on parole board decision.
  • Percentage of lifers granted parole is generally low, but rising in recent years.
  • Some states have banned parole in life sentences entirely through “truth in sentencing” laws.

Parole gives lifers hope, but certainly no guarantee, of reducing their sentence through good behavior and rehabilitation efforts.

Realities of Serving Life in Prison

Life in prison is marked by strict routine, isolation, overcrowding, and violence. Key realities include:

  • Housed in maximum security prisons with violent offenders.
  • Heavily regimented schedule with constant supervision.
  • Limited visitation and heavily censored mail correspondence.
  • Rampant gang presence and threat of victimization.
  • No privacy; celled with dangerous felons.
  • Poor healthcare and minimal rehabilitation services.

Serving a life sentence is widely considered a fate worse than death. The years of confinement wear down prisoners’ mental health and leave them institutionalized. Freedom becomes a distant memory.

Chances of Release from a Life Sentence

What are the actual odds of making it out of prison alive if given a life sentence? The chances are low, but growing:

  • ~16% of lifers released in 2020, up from 11% in 2001.
  • Lifers released typically served ~21 years in prison.
  • Release usually requires exemplary behavior + parole board approval.
  • Health condition or old age may factor into rare cases of compassionate release.
  • Commutations to lift life sentences are increasingly common but still rare.
  • ~200,000 prisoners currently serving life as of 2020 data.

So while the chances are still slim, they are improving as attitudes on mandatory life sentences change.

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States with Abolished Parole

Some states have taken an extra punitive step by entirely abolishing the possibility of parole, even in life sentences. These include:

  • California
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina

In these states, a life sentence means dying in prison except in the rarest of cases. Prison reform advocates argue this is inhumane and are pushing to reinstate parole.

Real-World Cost of Life Sentences

Life sentences come at a major financial cost to taxpayers and states. Important stats:

  • Average lifer cost is $60,000 per year in housing, food, healthcare.
  • Total cost for 50 year sentence = $3+ million.
  • Elderly lifers often have staggering medical costs.
  • ~20% of prisoners nationally are serving life/virtual life sentences.

With prisons already overcrowded and budgets stretched thin, the high costs of life sentences are increasingly being scrutinized and challenged.

Notable Life Sentence Cases

Here are some of the most high profile criminals currently serving life sentences:

Charles Manson – Leader of murderous cult; LWOP sentence. Died in 2017 after nearly 50 years imprisoned.

Dylann Roof – White supremacist convicted of murdering 9 African Americans in Charleston church. Sentenced to 9 consecutive life sentences.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman – Mexican drug lord; sentenced in 2019 to life plus 30 years on drug trafficking charges.

John Wayne Gacy – The “Killer Clown”; raped and killed 33 boys and men. Sentenced to death but was executed in 1994 after 14 years on death row.

Lee Boyd Malvo – D.C. sniper involved in random shootings; sentenced to life without parole. Currently appealing due to age at time of crime.

Susan Smith – Infamously lied that a black man kidnapped her children, but had actually drowned them herself. Sentenced to life.

Ted Kaczynski – “The Unabomber”; sentenced to life without parole for mail bombing spree killing 3.

Terry Nichols – Accomplice of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City bombing killing 168. Serving 161 life sentences.

Tsarnaev Brothers – Boston Marathon bombers; Dzhokhar sentenced to death, Tamerlan killed in shootout with police.

Table of Notable Criminals Serving Life Sentences

NameCrimeSentenceYear Sentenced
Charles MansonCult leader and mass murdererLife without parole1971
Dylann RoofCharleston church shooting (9 murders)9 consecutive life sentences2017
Joaquín “El Chapo” GuzmanMexican drug lordLife + 30 years2019
John Wayne GacyRape and murder of 33 boys and menDeath (executed in 1994)1980
Lee Boyd MalvoD.C. sniper shootingsLife without parole2004
Susan SmithMurdered her 2 childrenLife1995
Ted KaczynskiUnabomber; killed 3 with mail bombsLife without parole1998
Terry NicholsOklahoma City bombing accomplice161 life sentences1998
Tsarnaev BrothersBoston Marathon bombersDzhokhar: death; Tamerlan: killed in shootout2015

Notable Quotes on Life Sentences

“A life sentence is a life sentence. Even if you’re eligible for parole in seven years, it’s a life sentence.” – Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life at 16 and granted clemency in 2019 after 15 years

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“I’ve lived a tragic life, and it’s been a tough life, but I’m not ready to give up yet.” – Susan Smith, convicted of murdering her children

“Sentencing nonviolent offenders to life without parole is unjust and fiscally irresponsible.” – The Sentencing Project on the growth in life sentences

“Life in prison is far worse than death. It should be counted as ‘cruel and unusual.'” – John Wayne Gacy, serial killer who spent 14 years on death row

“He will die in prison. Justice is served.” – U.S. Attorney on drug lord El Chapo’s life sentence

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

A: It is possible but unlikely. Some lifers are granted parole after serving lengthy minimums, but release is not guaranteed. In states with no parole, leaving prison is extremely rare.

What happens when a prisoner serving life gets too old and sick?

A: Prisons are equipped to handle elderly and infirm inmates with staff and facilities. However, some may be granted compassionate release or allowed to move to an outside facility based on their medical needs.

How do lifers sentenced as teenagers get a 2nd chance?

A: Advocates are working to make juvenile lifers eligible for re-sentencing and parole. Some have succeeded in getting harsh life sentences reduced based on their age and rehabilitation efforts.

Which states have the most prisoners serving life sentences?

A: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have the most lifers, each with over 10,000 as of 2020. The growth has led to overcrowding and strains on state budgets.

Are all life sentences the same length of time?

A: No, life sentences can mean very different lengths of time. “Life without parole” means dying in prison with no release, while “life with parole” allows for a parole hearing after a set minimum time.


Life sentences stand out as one of the most serious penalties available within the United States criminal justice system. While they are usually portrayed as simple “life in prison” punishments, the reality is complex. The variations in parole eligibility, time served and release rates reveal a nuanced spectrum of punishments. Even with parole, most lifers will die imprisoned as attitudes begin changing. For now, life sentences continue holding symbolic power as society’s harshest condemnation apart from death. Their long-term implications for prisoners, victims and taxpayers will ensure ongoing scrutiny and debate around their role.

Prison Inside Team

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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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