Just Sociology

Life Imprisonment in the US: Reasons Characteristics and Coping Strategies

In recent years, the United States has seen a significant increase in the number of individuals serving life sentences in prison. This trend has been observed both internationally and within the US.

This article will explore the reasons for the increase in life imprisonment and the characteristics of inmates over time. It will also examine the research methods used to obtain this data.

Reason for Increase

There are several reasons for the increase in life imprisonment in the United States. One of the major reasons is changes to law and sentencing policies.

In many states, mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws have resulted in more individuals serving life sentences. Additionally, many states have adopted harsher sentences for certain offenses such as drug-related crimes.

Another reason for the increase in life imprisonment is the minimum jail tariff, which sets a minimum amount of time that individuals must serve before being considered for parole. This has resulted in longer sentences and more individuals serving life sentences.

Perhaps one of the most controversial reasons for the increase in life imprisonment is the use of joint enterprise. This legal concept allows individuals to be convicted for the actions of others in certain circumstances.

This has resulted in individuals receiving life sentences for the actions of someone else, even if they did not commit the crime themselves.

Research Methods

The increase in life imprisonment has been well-documented through various research methods. One of the most common methods is through interviews with inmates serving life sentences.

These interviews provide valuable insight into the factors that led to their sentence and their experiences within the criminal justice system. Researchers have also used surveys to gather data on inmates serving life sentences.

These surveys allow for a larger sample size and can provide more generalizable results. They also provide information on the characteristics of inmates, including their age, ethnicity, and criminal history.

To obtain more comprehensive data, researchers have also conducted total sample studies. These studies gather data on all inmates serving life sentences within a certain period.

This allows for a more accurate representation of the population and can provide insight into overarching trends.

Differences between Lifers over Time

While the increase in life imprisonment is concerning, it is also important to consider the differences between lifers over time. One of the notable differences is the characteristics of today’s inmates.

Inmates serving life sentences are now much younger than in previous decades. Many of these individuals are ethnic minorities and have a non-professional criminal background.

Additionally, many have experienced a chaotic upbringing. Another interesting difference is gender.

While men still make up the majority of individuals serving life sentences, the number of women serving life sentences has increased significantly in recent years. One factor contributing to this increase is the abuse that many women have experienced in their lives.

Research has shown that women who have been abused are more likely to commit crimes and receive harsher sentences.


The increase in life imprisonment is a complex issue that requires careful consideration. Understanding the reasons for the increase and the characteristics of inmates is essential in developing effective policies and programs.

By using a variety of research methods, we can obtain a more comprehensive understanding of this trend and its impact on the criminal justice system.


Constructing a Life in Prison

Life imprisonment is a significant change in lifestyle for anyone, but it is especially challenging for those who have been sentenced to life at a young age. Coping strategies are essential to constructing a life within the prison walls.

Inmates often enter a survival mode that allows them to endure the harsh reality of prison life. In many cases, severe denial that they will be in prison for the rest of their lives keeps the negative thoughts and emotions at bay.

However, positive coping strategies such as faith, education, therapy sessions, and self-improvement are also essential in helping prisoners craft their lives. 3.1 Coping Strategies

Prisoners use various strategies to cope with the reality of their sentences.

Many prisoners turn to religion to help cope with their situation. They may participate in religious services and prayer sessions that help them find a purpose and bring a sense of tranquility to their lives.

Education is also a helpful coping mechanism for inmates. Through reading, studying, and taking classes, they can continue to learn about the world and stay up to date on current affairs.

In some cases, therapy sessions are available to inmates. These sessions can be incredibly helpful in helping individuals process their emotions surrounding their lives in prison.

Additionally, participation in self-help groups or seminars may provide prisoners with new coping techniques and ways of looking at their situations. These tools also help address specific issues, including changes in family dynamics or developing positive communication skills.

There is also a negative coping mechanism that many prisoners resort to, and that is suppression of emotions. Rather than processing emotions and working through them, some prisoners act as though they are unaffected emotionally by their situation.

This method is often unsustainable, and the pent-up emotions can manifest in anger, frustration, and violent outbursts. 3.2 Coping with Time

For inmates serving a life sentence, perhaps the most challenging aspect of their sentence is the idea of spending the rest of their life behind bars.

Time becomes an enemy to many inmates, and it is essential to find ways to cope with it constructively. One strategy is to ignore it, keeping busy with various activities and duties within the prison.

Time can become a blur in this way, with prisoners finding that days and weeks have passed quickly. Another strategy is to set goals and find constructive ways to use time.

Whether it is studying for a degree, preparing for a career, or working on a creative project, finding a sense of purpose in time spent can help keep an inmate motivated to keep moving forward. Unfortunately, time also brings with it maturation and damage.

The longer a prisoner spends in prison, the more they will mature in terms of physical age and intellect, but at the same time, the longer they spend in this institutional environment, the more they will be damaged psychologically.

Shorter Minimal Sentences

In recent years, many states have begun to reevaluate their policies towards minimum jail tariffs. Many prison reform advocates and social justice champions have called for shorter minimal sentences, which would give inmates the opportunity to be considered for parole more quickly.

4.1 Benefit of Early Release

One of the significant benefits of early release is that it reduces the number of people serving life sentences in prison. This is particularly effective when looking at prisoners who are low-risk to society.

By providing these inmates with the opportunity to return to their homes and families, they can contribute positively to society and make positive changes in their lives. Another benefit is that inmates can continue their education and training programs outside of prison.

When inmates are serving a life sentence, they often miss out on opportunities to learn or train for a career. By getting released early, inmates have a better chance of continuing their education and improving their chances of finding a job and becoming productive members of society.

While early release does carry some risk of reoffending, it is important to remember that those risks can be minimized. By assessing individual cases and giving inmates the chance to show that they can successfully return to society before granting early release, the risks can be significantly reduced.

Additionally, those who do reoffend can be put back in prison if necessary.


Building a life in prison is a difficult task, but the strategies outlined above can be helpful in constructing a positive way forward. While life imprisonment is a serious matter, implementing shorter minimal sentences and allowing for early release opportunities can provide hope and a way for prisoners to heal, grow, and work to become valuable members of society.


Relevance to A-level Sociology

The topic of life imprisonment is highly relevant to the A-level Sociology curriculum as it touches on several fundamental aspects of the subject. This expansion will focus on the ways in which life imprisonment can be integrated into three main modules: Crime and Deviance, Interactionism and Crime, and Researching the Underdog.

5.1 Crime and Deviance Module

Within the Crime and Deviance module, students are introduced to the ideas of punishment and crime control. Life imprisonment is a severe form of punishment and raises a broader theoretical question: Does it work as a deterrent, or is it merely an expression of society’s anger?

For instance, is life imprisonment a way to prevent people from committing crimes, or is it merely a retribution act to punish those who offend? Furthermore, within this module, gender differences are discussed in relation to crime and punishment.

More often than not, women receive lighter sentences in comparison to men. The disparity in sentencing can be attributed to disparities in the criminal justice system and societal biases.

Male offenders often face harsher punishment than their female counterparts, which can be attributed to the traditional masculine values of toughness and aggression. Life imprisonment is no exception, and it presents an opportunity to discuss issues of gender and inequality within the criminal justice system.

Moreover, life imprisonment is linked to anomie, a term used to describe the breakdown of social norms and values. This is relevant in criminology because anomie can lead to crime as it creates a sense of cultureless society where there are no rules.

Life imprisonment is an extreme scenario for individuals who have committed a crime that doesn’t conform to societal norm and values. 5.2 Interactionism and Crime

Interactionism is another module that can benefit from discussing life imprisonment.

Interactionism explores how social interactions impact the development of self-identity, which, in turn, influences people’s behaviors. Life imprisonment is an example of how change in law, policies, and sentencing guidelines interacts with social norms, leading to a change in the perception of self-identity.

Interactionists are interested in the labeling theory, which illustrates how people respond to behavior based on the labels attached to it. For instance, society tends to label people serving life sentences as “murderers” or “dangerous criminals.” The labeling theory is useful when discussing the seriousness of crime and how society’s response to crime shapes the lived experience of the offenders.

5.3 Researching the Underdog

Researching the Underdog is a module that emphasizes giving a voice to overlooked and forgotten individuals in society. Life imprisonment presents an opportunity to explore the experiences of individuals who are often excluded from society.

Incarcerated individuals who serve life sentences have limited access to speak for themselves, and as such, sociologists need to give them a voice. Research on this topic would use qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews, ethnography and investigations to provide a view of the lived experience behind bars.

The result would be a more comprehensive understanding of the lives of lifers and the systems that shape their experiences. Research on this topic is particularly fitting as the voices of incarcerated people frequently go unheard.


Life imprisonment is a topical issue that provides an opportunity to explore various topics within the A-level Sociology modules. The study of crime and punishment, gender differences, the labeling theory, and researching the underdog can all benefit from discussions related to life imprisonment.

By integrating this topic into curriculums, students can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system and its impact on the lives of individuals serving life sentences.


This article has explored the complex issue of life imprisonment and its increase in recent years. It has discussed the reasons for the increase and the characteristics of inmates over time.

Additionally, it has examined coping strategies for prisoners and the benefits of shorter minimal sentences. This article has also discussed the relevance of life imprisonment to the A-level Sociology curriculum, particularly within the Crime and Deviance, Interactionism and Crime, and Researching the Underdog modules.

By better understanding the complexities of life imprisonment, we can improve the criminal justice system to better serve society as a whole.


1. What is the reason for the increase in life imprisonment?

– Changes in law and sentencing policies, joint enterprise, and minimum jail tariffs have contributed to the increase. 2.

What are some coping strategies used by prisoners serving life sentences? – Positive coping strategies may include faith, education, therapy sessions, and self-improvement, while negative ones may include suppression of emotions.

3. What are the benefits of early release?

– Early release reduces the number of people serving life sentences and provides the opportunity for inmates to continue their education, training, and integration back into society. 4.

How is life imprisonment relevant to the A-level Sociology curriculum? – Life imprisonment is relevant to the Crime and Deviance, Interactionism and Crime, and Researching the Underdog modules.

5. What are some of the characteristics of today’s inmates serving life sentences?

– They are younger, more likely to be from an ethnic minority background, have a non-professional criminal background, and have experienced a chaotic upbringing.

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