A few decades ago, a “life sentence” often suggested harsh punishment but meant only 10 to 20 years behind bars, says the New York Times. Now, driven by tougher laws and political pressure on governors and parole boards, thousands of lifers go into prisons each year, and in many states only a few ever come. The times says the U.S. has created a “booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin.” A Times survey found that about 132,000 of the nation’s prisoners, almost 1 in 10, are serving life sentences. The number of lifers has almost doubled in the last decade, far outpacing the overall growth in the prison population. Of lifers sentenced between 1988 and 2001, about a third are serving time for sentences other than murder, including burglary and drug crimes.
In 1993, about 20 percent of all lifers had no chance of parole. Last year, the number rose to 28 percent. The phenomenon is related to the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. As the nation’s enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and death row exonerations, more states are using life sentences. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola more than 3,000 of the 5,100 prisoners are serving life without parole, and most of the rest are serving sentences so long that they cannot be completed in a typical lifetime. About 150 inmates have died there in the last five years; the prison has opened a second cemetery, where simple white crosses are adorned with only the inmate’s name and prisoner ID number.