Judge Barbara Jones of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan said Ebbers deserved a stiff sentence because he was a leader of fraud that inflated profits by $11 billion, cost investors $2 billion and toppled the telecom giant, which includes MCI, in 2002.
"I find that a sentence of anything less would not reflect the seriousness of this crime," she said.
A jury convicted Ebbers in March of securities fraud, conspiracy and seven counts of filing false reports with regulators. Federal sentencing guidelines pointed to a sentence of 30 years to life imprisonment, but such guidelines were declared nonbinding by a Supreme Court ruling last year.
Defense attorney Reid Weingarten had asked for leniency, citing Ebbers' heart condition, his "humble" origins and charitable works. He described Ebbers as "a modest man" and an angel to many "unbelievable" charitable causes.
Federal prosecutors, however, had sought a life sentence to serve as a deterrent to other executives.
"Corporate executives will, in the future, consider the sentence imposed on Ebbers whenever those executives are tempted to mislead shareholders or manipulate the financial statements of their companies," the prosecutors said in their brief requesting life in prison.
Judge Jones said she was moved by Ebbers' charitable work, but did not think the heart condition serious enough to impose a lighter sentence.
In a victim impact statement, a 37-year-old former WorldCom salesman, Henry Bruin Jr., said the company's collapse caused him "untold human carnage" and put him through "sheer hell." He lost all of his savings and couldn't get another sales job.
Five other former WorldCom executives and accountants face sentencing this summer. They pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against their former boss.
Ebbers took the witness stand during the trial and maintained that he had no knowledge of the fraud at the company.
A few jurors later said that his testimony seemed evasive and had persuaded them of his guilt, according to the New York Times.
Jones ordered Ebbers to report to prison on Oct. 12. She said she would recommend Ebbers be designated to the federal prison in Yazoo City, Miss., close to his home.
Ebbers' lawyers said he will appeal the conviction.