During the 40 years convicted murderer James LeRoy Iverson watched from his prison cell window, he saw a field transformed from a nesting ground for geese to a Wal-Mart Supercenter site.
A week after being paroled as North Dakota’s longest-serving inmate, the 70-year-old got his first look inside the Bismarck store.
“I’d never been to a Wal-Mart before — they have oodles and oodles of stuff in there,” said Iverson, dressed in a crisp new blue jeans and shirt purchased from the retail giant. “It took me three hours to walk all the way around that place.”
Four decades after his 1969 conviction for strangling two women in Grand Forks, Iverson is among a growing number of senior parolees returning to communities nationwide.
He has taken walks and taxis around town since his release earlier this month and said he’s in awe of the changes. He likened it to having been in a time capsule.
“People dress different — I see a lot of people walking around in shorts and more men with beards,” said Iverson, who had to abandon his first attempt at figuring out how to use a cellphone.
The US prison population has grown 500 percent to 1.5 million since the early 1970s, said Ryan King, a policy analyst with The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that supports criminal justice reform. The number of state and federal inmates aged 55 years and up more than doubled from 32,000 in 1995 to 70,000 in 2007, the latest figures available.
“More people are in prisons and they’re staying for longer periods,” King said. “And more than 90 percent of them will come out at some point.”
The first wave of people sentenced under stricter criminal sanctions established some 30 years ago are now being released, said Marquette University criminal law professor Michael O’Hear. And while long-serving inmates sometimes become dependent on prisons, cases of elderly ex-cons reoffending just to return are rare, he said
“Most people who are in want to be out,” he said.
Iverson, who believed he’d die behind bars, said he sees life on the outside as a second chance. He said he suffers from diabetes and other illnesses and has been turned down for Social Security because he lacks a work history outside prison.
But he hopes an associate degree in hotel and restaurant management earned in prison will help him land a job: “I want to work, and I’ll do anything, even volunteer work.”
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