"Death by incarceration," meaning life sentences without the possibility of parole,, has been condemned by a coalition of civil and human rights organizations. On Thursday, they filed a complaint with the United Nations urging "special rapporteurs" to declare the longstanding U.S. practice of subjecting people to life-without-parole sentences “cruel, racially discriminatory” and “an arbitrary deprivation of liberty” that violates incarcerated people’s rights, the Guardian reports. Terrell Carter and other members of the Right to Redemption Committee, a group of incarcerated people seeking the abolition of the practice, argue that life sentences amounted to torture. They proposed instead to enact sentencing laws that would eliminate the practice of “virtual life” sentences – those longer than a person’s remaining years of life expectancy, often more than 50 years. “Death by incarceration is the devastating consequence of a cruel and racially discriminatory criminal legal system that is designed not to address harm, violence, and its root causes, but to satisfy the political pressure to be tough on crime,” the complaint said. Testimony from inmates described how "death by incarceration" has affected their mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as the burden it places on their family members.
The complaint noted that the U.S. use of virtual life sentences increased exponentially since the 1970s, particularly after the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in 1972, prompting states to strengthen life sentencing for offenders. Even after the high court reversed course in 1976, extreme sentencing practices continued. By the 1980s and 90s, as the federal government incentivized states to impose harsher sentencing practices to curtail rises in crime, more and more people were imprisoned for longer. The toll of that suffering has disproportionately upended the lives of Black and brown people who have been subjected to over-policing, leading to more mass incarceration. Organizers believe that is a violation of the international human rights law prohibiting racial discrimination. The U.S. is the only country that sentences children under 18 to life without parole, a practice that the United Nations has already cited. The U.S. accounts for more than 80 percent of people worldwide serving life sentences without parole. Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, one of the organizations submitting the complaint, said pressure from the United Nations and the international community could bolster the ongoing movement against very long prison terms.