About Death By Incarceration, Also Known as Life Sentences
The United States is a global outlier in its system of mass incarceration, and, likewise, in condemning people to die in prison. Through extreme sentences such as life without parole, life with parole, “virtual life,” and other term-of-years sentences that exceed life expectancy, the United States deprives individuals of their basic human right to hope for a future outside of prison. Incarcerated people, their loved ones, and advocates in the United States refer to this as “death by incarceration” (DBI) or “the other death penalty.” According to the Sentencing Project, in 2020, 15 percent of the total prison population, or 203,865 people, were serving life or virtual life sentences nationwide. And a study published in 2019 found that more people are serving DBI sentences in the United States than in the other 113 surveyed countries combined. Death by incarceration is the devastating consequence of a cruel and racially discriminatory criminal legal system that, far from addressing violence, harm, and its root causes, breeds more of the same. The impacts of DBI sentences are felt not only by the individual serving the sentence: DBI also has devastating ripple effects across the individual’s community.
The United States’ use of DBI sentences violates a range of international human rights. First, the disproportionate imposition of DBI sentences on racial and ethnic minorities, in particular Black and Latinx people, violates the prohibition against racial discrimination. Second, by arbitrarily and permanently sentencing individuals to prison terms that result in their premature death, DBI sentences violate the right to life. Third, as recognized by numerous international human rights bodies, by depriving individuals of their right to hope and to rehabilitation, DBI sentences violate the international prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The devastating consequences on an individual’s right to family life further exacerbate the cruelty of DBI sentences. Finally, the failure of DBI sentences to serve any legitimate purpose further demonstrates that such sentences are an impermissibly arbitrary deprivation of liberty. To comply with international human rights standards, the United States must abolish DBI and restore the right to hope of people serving these sentences.
Abolitionist Law Center · Amistad Law Project · Center for Constitutional Rights · California Coalition for Women Prisoners · Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, Andy and Gwen Stern Community Lawyering Clinic · DROP LWOP Coalition · Release Aging People in Prison Campaign · The Sentencing Project · Legal and technical support provided by the UC Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic
1Hood Power · Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School · American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) · American University Washington College of Law, International Human Rights Law Clinic · Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic · Critical Resistance · Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration – Delaware County · Ella Baker Center · Fair Chance Project · Families United to End LWOP - FUEL · Felony Murder Elimination Project · Healing Communities PA · Let's Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee · Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law · Right 2 Redemption · Silicon Valley De-Bug · Spirit of Mandela Coordinating Committee, National Jericho Movement · Students for Abolition, Liberation, and Transformation at Haverford University · Survived and Punished NY · The Center for Justice at Columbia University · USC International Human Rights Clinic