Are Whole Life Sentences Inhumane?

…..when a judge passes a ‘whole life order’. This sentence means that the offender must spend the rest of their life in prison.1

Malcolm Green received a whole life order in 1989 because, it was decided that he would likely kill again were he to be released at any point.2 (my emphasis)

A British ‘whole life order’ is a weakened form of capital punishment. Its legitimacy depends on a fallacy. The fallacy is: criminals are irremediable throughout their lives. A whole life order is a death sentence by stealth. A prolonged stealth execution is as inhumane as a ‘normal’ execution.

What could it mean to base a punishment on the premise that a person won’t change in their entire life? Hashem Abedi, the bomber of the Manchester Arena, was 17 when he committed his heinous act. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison.3 His sentence covers teenage years, adulthood, middle-age and old age. After 55 years he can apply for parole without any guarantee he’ll get it. His crime makes it likely his sentence will silently convert into a de facto whole life order.

Hashem, as an OAP, in the 2070s is being punished for what? He’ll have a DNA connexion with the 2017 criminal but that’s about it. He might remember the Manchester Arena bombing unless his mind has been overwhelmed by dementia or Alzheimers. If he suffers these commonplace mental diseases his punishment will be incomprehensible. Worse: no-one could explain his situation to him.

Classically the discussion is summarised like this,

“…the memory criterion implies, contrary to the transitivity of identity, that, although the elderly general is the same person as the young lieutenant, and the young lieutenant is the same person as the schoolboy, the elderly general is not the same person as the young schoolboy”.4

British criminals under 21 can’t be sentenced to a ‘whole life order’. Acts of terrorism by under 21s is difficult for politicians. They routinely flaunt their commitment to ‘toughness’ on crime. “Boris Johnson cited [Hashem] Abedi’s case, saying if someone plots to deliberately kill dozens of people “then it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘only’ 18, 19 or 20 when you do so”.3 Johnson described the regulations as a ‘loophole’. The judge imposed a virtual ‘whole life order.’

Hashem could be a worse person5 in the 2070s. Embittered and filled with hatred, looking for vengeance. He’d be a bone fide threat to society. Alternatively, he could be filled with remorse for the death and destruction his ideological act caused. Or, maybe, his mental state could have deteriorated into dementia. Or his physical incapacity might prevent him from doing anything more ambitious than day to day living. All that’s known is that decades in prison will impact on him. The transformation will be for better or worse, exactly like those who aren’t imprisoned.

Hashem, unless he’s unusual, will age faster in prison with commensurate physical and mental incapacities. For the incarcerated ‘old’ age begins at about 50. Age UK defines older prisoners as those aged over 50, due to the accelerated ageing associated with being in prison.6 Older prisoners,

“….are probably even more likely than general population peers to have complex physical and mental health needs….including dementia related needs…..the prevalence of depression in UK prisons is estimated to be around 10 times higher [than the general population]….a possible alert to higher risk of dementia among prisoners.7

Dementia is stressful for everyone concerned. Prison warders find it especially challenging because behaviour is altered, becoming unacceptable. Prisoners “…may overreact to things, have rapid mood changes or feel irritable.”8 The consequence is unwitting infringements of prison regulations. This makes them less eligible for parole due to their undiagnosed mental health illness.

Hashem has many problems facing him in the 2070s. His parole interview will be coloured by the enormity of his historic crime and the massive challenges facing him trying to keep a ‘clean sheet’ for 55 years. This could transform a virtual whole life sentence into the real thing.

Hashem’s heinous crime was abhorrent and his sentence is inhumane. Along with every other criminal who’s had a whole life order, Hashem has been given a death sentence by stealth. If Britain wishes to impose whole life sentences, they should accept the logic of the proposition and execute criminals in a judicial way. Neither execution or whole life sentences are humane and shouldn’t be imposed. An ‘ordinary’ life sentence is an entirely sufficient punishment.


1 Life sentences – Sentencing (

2 British prisoners still serving whole life sentences | Crime + Investigation UK ( Green has served 32 years of his whole life tariff. Immediately prior to this sentence he served 18 years for another murder. Since 1971 he’s spent 50 years in prison where he continues to live.

3 Teenagers convicted of murder could face whole-life terms – BBC News Abedi was guilty of the Manchester Arena bombing 2017. “UK defines older prisoners as those aged over 50, due to the accelerated ageing associated with being in prison.” Hashem will begin to suffer age related illnesses about half way through his 55 years sentence. ppp_older_prisoners_en_wa.pdf (

4 Identity Over Time (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

5 There is a very interesting discussion about this point: Does prison make people worse? But with Hashem he will serve 55 years as a minimum this appears likely. The psychological pressures exerted by this are in a different category to that suffered by ‘normal’ criminals. Hard evidence: does prison really work? (

6 ppp_older_prisoners_en_wa.pdf (

7 Dementia in UK prisons: Failings and solutions? – Purewal – 2020 – Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health – Wiley Online Library

8 The psychological and emotional impact of dementia | Alzheimer’s Society (

This entry was posted in Health, Philosophy, Politics, Prison, Prison reform and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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