History of the concept of life imprisonment
Throughout history, life imprisonment has been intrinsically linked with the death penalty
and has progress-ively become an alternative punishment for the most serious crimes. However, the
initial purpose of this substitution was not to mitigate the situation of the convicted person. On the
contrary, the medieval view, which persisted for many centuries, was that life-long imprisonment in
combination with hard labour and solitary confinement would be seen by offenders as a worse
alternative to death. In the same vein, one of the arguments for the retention of the death penalty
was precisely that life imprisonment with hard labour was so severe that it would cause more
suffering to the individual concerned and be more cruel than capital punishment. From today’s
perspective, the view that persons serving a life sentence (or for that matter any other sentence)
should be additionally punished by the particular severity of conditions in prison is manifestly
unacceptable. However, such a view is still deeply entrenched in the public opinion in various
European countries.
The concept of life imprisonment was introduced in the 1990s in many member states of the
Council of Europe following the ratification of Protocol 6 to the European Convention on Human
Rights abolishing the death penalty. The last execution in a Council of Europe member state took
place in 1997 and, since 2013, Europe has been a death-penalty free zone in law (with the exception
of Belarus).3 However, in many countries it was considered that the public would support the
abolition of the death penalty only if its replacement was considered sufficiently punitive.
Consequently, persons sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment but
little detailed planning appears to have been carried out in relation to the implementation of the life
sentences. At the same time, over the 25 years of the CPT’s existence, there has been a marked
increase in the number of life sentences imposed. This seems mainly to be the result of two factors,
the abolition or suspension of the death penalty throughout Europe and sentencing policies across
member states in respect of serious crimes. The latest available statistics4 show that there were a
total of some 27,000 life-sentenced prisoners in Council of Europe member states in 2014. On the
basis of a sample of 22 countries in respect of which relevant data are available for a longer period,
the number of life-sentenced prisoners had increased by 66% from 2004 to 2014. Further, in 2014,
there were about 7,500 inmates held in indeterminate detention for security or public protection
reasons in various member states of the Council of Europe (in particular the United Kingdom
(England and Wales), Germany, Italy and Switzerland).
In the 1990s, the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe specified a
period of imprisonment of 20 to 35 years as a blanket minimum for all commuted sentences and
new life sentences, without any individual factors being taken into account until this period had
elapsed. Equally, many states failed to develop regimes for life-sentenced prisoners tailored to their
individual situation. Rather, all such sentenced prisoners were considered to be “dangerous” and in
need of ongoing strict control. Now, 20 to 25 years later, as some prisoners start to approach the
moment when they may apply for conditional release, there is a realisation that little has been done
to give such prisoners a realistic hope of release back into the community. Indeed, long periods of
negative treatment in prison, severely restricting the right to maintain relationships with family and
friends outside, and a total lack of preparation for release or planning of reintegration are likely to
impair seriously the ability of prisoners to function in the outside community.


A moratorium has been introduced in the Russian Federation.
Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics (SPACE) 2004.8 and 2014.7.

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