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Whole-life sentences: when life in prison actually means life

Lucy Letby will die behind bars after the 33-year-old nurse was sentenced to life in prison without the prospect of parole – an incredibly rare occurrence in the British justice system.

The most prolific child serial killer in modern British history becomes only the fourth woman to ever receive a “whole-life sentence”, joining serial killers Rose West and Joanna Dennehy and the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, who died in 2002.

What are whole-life sentences?

Whole-life orders are the “most severe punishment” available in our criminal justice system and are “reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes”, said the Shropshire Star.

The sentence was introduced in 1983 as a way of condemning “exceptionally” severe crimes by defendants over the age of 21, said The Telegraph.

“While prisoners sentenced to life serve an average of 16.5 years in prison, ‘whole-lifers’ do not have any prospect of release as their case is not subject to periodic review by the Parole Board,” the paper added.

“Life, in this instance, really does mean life.”

Only around 70 people are currently serving whole-life sentences, including four who are being held in secure hospitals. These include some of the country’s most dangerous offenders, such as Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield, Sarah Everard’s killer Wayne Couzens, the man who murdered British soldier Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo, necrophiliac David Fuller and Ali Harbi Ali, who murdered MP David Amess.

Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which became law last year, the government expanded the use of whole-life orders for the premeditated murder of a child. The reforms also allowed judges to hand out the maximum sentence to 18 to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, such as for acts of terrorism leading to mass loss of life.

What is life like for full-lifers?

Letby is expected to begin her sentence at HMP Bronzefield in Surrey, the largest women’s prison in Europe and “home to some of Britain’s most sadistic killers”, said The Telegraph.

The maximum-security institution, which can hold around 550 inmates, was criticised three years ago when reports said prisoners were being offered activities such as yoga, Pilates, tai chi and meditation at a new “holistic wellness centre”. But prisons expert Mark Leech told the paper Letby’s life will be far from comfortable.

As a “restricted status” prisoner she will start her term on suicide watch and it is likely to be at least six months until she is able to mingle with the main prison population. She will initially be kept in the hospital prison wing to assess her mental health before being moved to a cell on her own.

“Her life for much of the next few years is going to be a lonely one,” said Leech, as Letby interacts mainly with prison officers, her key worker in the prison and one or two cleaners, much of that through the hatch in her cell door.

“She won’t be able to do much, other than read newspapers or books and watch TV. She’ll get one hour of exercise by herself each day. She will be able to phone her family and receive visits from them, but the police will have to vet them first,” he added.

The main focus for prison authorities will be on Letby’s safety as she will be a target for other prisoners.

Like Rose West, who over time has been allowed to participate in reading groups and baking competitions at HMP New Hall in West Yorkshire, Letby will eventually be permitted some leisure time and small privileges. This might allow her to, for example, pursue an Open University degree or art therapy course and even get access to a computer.

It will still be at least 20 years, however, before she could be moved to a low-security prison, Leech predicted.

Is there debate around whole-life sentences?

While the public overwhelmingly support whole-life sentences, they have long been subject to legal and ethical debate.

In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that lifers condemned to die behind bars were not having their human rights breached. However, England and Wales are “almost alone in Europe in handing out these sentences”, said The Guardian at the time.

“Portugal, Norway and Spain do not have any kind of life sentence, while every European country except Holland and England and Wales have fixed periods for their lifers after which release is considered,” added the paper.

Although whole life sentences are, in principle, compatible with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, said campaigning news site Each Other, the European Court of Human Rights is “especially concerned to avoid situations where a whole life prisoner is deprived of any hope of release”.

In Letby’s case “the question of whether prison is even the best place for her, let alone for the rest of her natural life, has got to be asked”, Yvonne Jewkes, professor of criminology at the University of Bath, told The Telegraph.

Others have taken the opposite view. When the UK first suspended the death penalty in 1965, “many hoped that removing violence from the top end of justice would trickle down through society, making us more civilised”, said Tim Stanley in The Telegraph. “Instead, crime went up and today, as predators exploit our liberality, a state without the death penalty resembles a lion tamer without a whip.”

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