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THE SIMPSON MURDER CASE : Now He’s Prisoner No. 4013970 : In L.A. County Jail’s ‘High Power Unit,’ Simpson Is Isolated in a 9-by-7 Cell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

O.J. Simpson is the latest in a long line of the famous and the infamous to beheld in a special Los Angeles County Jail wing deputies call the “high power unit.” The inmates refer to it as “death row.”

This is where the snitches and the serial killers are held, where the celebrities and the dirty cops are kept away from the general jail population for their own protection.

The 9-by-7-foot cells in the unit line both sides of a stark, gray-walled corridor on the jail’s second floor. There are about a dozen cells, each with a reinforced security door. Painted in the hallway, outside each cell, is a red stripe--called a “deadline"--to warn jail trustees, and deputies, not to gawk.

The celebrated defendants that have been housed in the unit include actors Todd Bridges and Sean Penn, Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi and accomplice Angelo Buono, financier Charles H. Keating Jr. and accused child molester Raymond Buckey. Lyle and Erik Menendez were housed there before they were transferred to another high security unit.

Referred to as simply O.J. by his legion of fans, Simpson is now known in jail by a booking number: 4013970. Instead of a 5,752-square-foot Brentwood estate, he will be spending his days in a 63-square-foot cell. And the man who once displayed his athletic skills before great crowds of cheering fans now will be escorted several days a week to the jail’s concrete exercise yard, where he can lift weights or shoot baskets--alone.

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Simpson is under a suicide watch in the unit, jail officials say. Every 15 minutes, a guard wanders by, peers into his cell and checks off a card on the door, ensuring that his condition is regularly monitored. The cell has been stripped of anything that Simpson could use to harm himself or others; it contains only a toilet, a sink and a bunk.

Inmates in the unit lead a much more constricted life than the general jail population: Simpson will not eat in the chow hall; his meals will be brought to his cell. He will be escorted to the showers, alone, every other day.

He will not have access to the television room. Instead, a television will be rolled into his cell for a few hours a day. And he will not see his visitors in the main visiting room, but instead through a glass partition down the hall from his cell.

Because of the complexity of his case, it is expected that this wing of the jail--known officially as the 7000 unit--will be Simpson’s home for some time.

“I know exactly what he’s going through,” said Rickey Ross, a former deputy who once faced a highly publicized murder charge and spent 82 days in the unit. “The isolation is hell . . . there’s no more lonely feeling in the world.”

Ross recently was tried, in another case, with attempting to purchase a large quantity of cocaine from an undercover agent. The case ended in a mistrial.

“As bad as being in that cell was, going to court is worse,” Ross said. “O.J. will feel like he’s on display for everyone in the world. It’s almost like it’s an out-of-body experience, like it’s happening to someone else. It’ll be so humiliating for him that his cell will eventually become a refuge.”

The nights are the worst time, said veteran jailhouse informant Leslie White, who has been in the 7000 unit about half a dozen times during the past 15 years. Inmates can hear other men in the unit crying at night. Down the hall, in the mental ward, men scream until morning. Others in the nearby hospital wing, coming down off PCP, pound on their cell doors and wail.

Many inmates will probably try to curry favor with Simpson because of his celebrity and wealth, White said. They soon will be trying to slip him candy bars--the new jailhouse currency now that smoking is no longer allowed--when passing in the tier.

But some inmates, if they had the chance, might attack him, said J.C. Reiff, a recently retired sheriff’s deputy who worked in the unit for three years.

“It’s like the old Westerns--there’s always some guy who will go after someone famous so they can make a name for themself,” Reiff said. “And just the fact that someone like him has bucks . . . some inmates may try ways to extort it.”

It is possible that Simpson would be comfortable in the general population, Reiff said, but the Sheriff’s Department cannot take any chances. If anything happened to such a high-profile inmate, it would be a public relations disaster.

There is a tremendous amount of curiosity among the general jail population, and the public at large, about celebrity felons, Reiff said.

“One of the most degrading experiences I’ve ever had was when some sheriffs brought a tour up to the unit,” Ross said. “I felt like an animal in a zoo. These were officials of some kind, and the deputies pointed to us and told them what we were in for. It was the only time I completely lost it.”

Simpson arrived at the County Jail on Friday at 10:20 p.m. Unlike most inmates, he was not transported on a county bus with barred windows, but was whisked to the jail in a police car.

Inmates and guards familiar with the booking process said Simpson was given a red plastic wristband with his booking number on it--to distinguish him from most general population inmates, who wear white bands. He then was given a blue jumpsuit, was fingerprinted and had his mug shot taken. A medical technician gave him a blood test and a chest X-ray.

He was then escorted to his cell by a host of deputies and a sergeant.

Famous Inmates

Here are some of the people who have been held in a Los Angeles County Jail wing called the “high power unit.”

Charles Keating

Sean Penn

Raymond Buckey

Christian Brando


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