IN 1981, at the height of the debate on the abolition of the death penalty in France, philosopher Michel Foucault had this warning: “The real divide between criminal justice systems is not between those that include the death penalty and the others; it is between those that allow irreversible sentences and those that don’t.”

Is the death penalty irreversible? Certainly. Is life in prison irreversible? Not necessarily. As the former General Inspector of Prisons, Jean-Marie Delarue, explains “Life imprisonment is a conviction for life, but that does not mean that the sentence will be enforced for the rest of the convict’s life.”(read our interview.). In fact, under criminal law of the signatory countries to the European Convention on Human Rights, a life prisoner should be able to request a reduction of his sentence and hope to get out one day. And yet for around 40 years many countries, including France, have increasingly and overwhelmingly turned to life imprisonment and have made, through successive legislation, the enforcement of this terrible sentence to mean life, something which Larbi Belaïd has painfully experienced (read his life story).

In Europe, only half a dozen countries do not include life imprisonment in their penal codes. Among nations that ignore this sentence, Norway has the least severe penal system in the world. “Norwegians have a clear understanding of the pointlessness of very long sentences; this is because they are not hooked on the seriousness of the crime but are focused on chances for the prisoner to reintegrate, “explains Jean-Marie Delarue.

But Norway is an exception in a world where many countries lean toward true life imprisonment without parole. In this regard, the United States plays a leading role with over 30,000 prisoners sentenced to stay in jail until their last breath, including 2,500 minors. How can this institutional violence be explained? For Jonathan Simon, professor of law at the University of Berkeley, California (read his interview) “it is the expression of the fear in our society, the same that has helped give birth to the age of mass incarceration”. Other countries on the American continent, such as Honduras, are gradually moving towards the introduction of true life sentences in their legislation (see R.A. Gomez article).

Testimonies of two Italian prisoners, Carmelo Musumeci (see video report) and Marcello Dell’Anna (read his letter), both sentenced to true life imprisonment more than 20 years ago, express the inhumanity and absurdity of very long sentences and, more importantly, of sentences where the prisoner cannot see the end.