Life Imprisonment. Killer, His Felony and Punishment 2014-2017

Keywords: homicide, justice, killer, victim, life imprisonment, prison system, human rights

Research Goal/Hypothesis

Since life imprisonment was reinstated as a penalty in Poland, 304 murderers were sentenced between 19 November 1995 and 31 December 2011. The aim of this research project is: a) criminological analysis of qualified homicides and their perpetrators; b) analysis of the judicial dimension of life imprisonment; and c) analysis of life sentence implementation from the perspective of interested parties (the prisoners, prison staff, families of perpetrators and victims, the judiciary, and the public). The authors present the results of this research in a monograph, as well as in separate, scholarly publications.

The proposed research is the first of its kind in Poland, unique because of its topic, research method, and goal. Previous empirical studies of life imprisonment were of a partial character and presented the problem from one perspective.

The research include all of possible perspectives and are connected with new optics of studies not only criminological topics, but also research on the frontiers of fundamental rights and principles of justice. We take into account the development of civilization, including the social and legal system, and the current debate about the positive obligations of the State for adjudication and enforcement of life imprisonment.

The meaning of basic research is the pursuit of knowledge in order to understand a natural process irrespective of the potential applications that might arise from such knowledge. We want to understand the killer’s motivations and reasons of offence – that’s the grand challenge. We do not have in mind only  exclusively one criminal context, but also the social and psychological one. It would be good to combine related sciences and their perspectives. It would be worthwhile studying the motivation of criminals in their criminal career and their choices not only for the curiosity of understanding cognitive or emotional functions,  but also their behavior and felony – seen and assessed by the justice agencies, advocates, public opinion and victims family.

Research have a comparative nature: the result will be compared and referred to the current theoretical and practical knowledge about life imprisonment collected from other countries that have a longer and larger than the Polish experience in this field.

Obtained knowledge has an intrinsic value of its own. We realize also  that  it is crucial to pursue the practical applications that can arise from such knowledge. That is why the results will be presented and published in the first Polish monograph on the life imprisonment. Previous publications were very selective: statistical or dogmatic.

The research brings together the original research methods. In other words, the advantage of these studies is their complexity, through which it is possible to explain and describe the basis of the observed phenomena and facts, which have not been described, nor according to the relations between them.


1) We put forth, that those perpetrators of homicide who are sentenced to life imprisonment typically were previously convicted and were guilty of killing two people. Moreover, they are older and less educated than the average prisoner and often come from broken families, function outside the labor market, and have disturbed personalities.

2) We put forth, that such prisoners, while serving their life sentences, are predominantly handled under the standard approach that is used for all other prisoners, despite the fact that the court has willed them to spend the rest of their life in prison, which on average denotes 40 years. This routine is the result of expediency and a lack of professionally trained staff, even though individualization might be required by humanitarian reasons and rational execution of these life sentences.

3) We put forth, that the state has no general plan of action regarding this special category of prisoners. The reasonable execution of life sentences is a matter of chance, knowledge, dedication, and preference of a particular functionary or, on occasion, another person with access to the prisoner. When a punishment is expected to last till the end, or almost the end, of a convicted prisoner’s life, no one is held responsible for the effects of this long-term prison isolation.

4) We put forth, that inmates serving life sentences also see the need to diversify methods of their treatment. They want to be treated on a different set of principles than the rest of the prison population, because they cannot ignore the undetermined end of their sentence or the great likelihood that they will spend the rest of their life in prison. In order to ensure themselves a minimum level of autonomy, they are more open to cooperate with prison staff. Because of the nature of their sentence, inmates with life imprisonment – unlike the others – often plan their lives within prison and make an effort to realize these plans. The internal diversity of this group, which is largely due to the length of isolation – in some cases, more than 15 years and in others, it is just beginning – will verify these hypotheses.

The studies made use of various research methods. They will include four stages:

Stage I – familiarization with relevant literature – including foreign works – about perpetrators of homicides, the judicial dimension of sentencing, long-term punishments, and life imprisonment, as written from the perspective of human rights (court and tribunal judgments, standards of dealing with life sentence prisoners, inspection reports about life imprisonment, and decisions of human rights committees) and from the documentation of parliamentary work.

Stage II – the study of official documents (court records, prison records, documents from the Office of the Ombudsman) as well as the analysis of print and electronic media, documentaries (reportage), data from non-governmental organizations, and data from university law clinics. And questionnaire addressed to 302 prisoners for life.

Stage III – field research (observation of living conditions of life sentence prisoners) and coordination of semi-structured interviews on the basis of a questionnaire (partially standardized) with a representative group of 30-50 prisoners and with other interested parties (representatives of prison staff, the judiciary, and society, including family members of both victims and perpetrators).

Stage IV – case studies with consideration of criminological criteria (type and nature of the homicide): a) commissioned killings, serial killings, or murder under the auspices of organized crime; b) female perpetrators; c) perpetrators who killed for their own reasons or motives, and also with consideration of penitentiary criteria (length or stage of a served sentence): a) convicted inmates spending the least amount of time in isolation (up to two years); b) prisoners who reached a certain stage of their sentence (10 years, after 15 years); and finally, c) convicted prisoners spending the most time in isolation (over 20 years).

Impact of the expected results on the development of science and society

The study provides the unique opportunity to learn about the nature, administration, and implementation of life imprisonment over a span of nearly 20 years that it has been applied toward a specific and internally diverse group of prisoners. The research also will provide systematic knowledge about a small, but important group of perpetrators and the penalty applied to them. Therefore, the results of this research will have an impact on the development of criminology and other social sciences, as well as on law (e.g. they may provide a foundation for demands for change or recommendations).

Further, the results of this research will provide substantive, empirically legitimated, arguments for the academic and public debate regarding the meaning and implementation of life imprisonment policies. They may contribute to the improvement of such life sentence implementation and thus bring our academic and practical knowledge closer to the knowledge accrued in Western European countries, in which complex criminological studies are regularly conducted. These studies also will help in shaping a coherent system of individualized approaches to life sentence prisoners or a model strategy for working with such prisoners.

Udostępnij w mediach społecznościowych