Prisoner 1027820 is treated in many ways like any other inmate at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada: He gets the same standard issue blue uniform. He shares a bunk, toilet and sink with a cellmate. He rises around 6:30 a.m., eats an early breakfast — he likes cold cereal, with a muffin and fruit — then heads to his work shift.
He toils in the prison gym, cleaning equipment and mopping floors, four days a week. Like many older inmates, he contends with age and ailments, including bad knees, and he works out on weight machines regularly to stay fit. He also coaches prison sports teams, umpires games and recently became prison softball league commissioner.
But prisoner 1027820 isn’t just another inmate. He is O.J. Simpson: football legend and convicted felon serving nine to 33 years for armed robbery and kidnapping committed in 2007.
“He’s popular especially with the sports crowd — guys go up to him and ask him what he thinks about current sports teams,” said Jon Hawkins, a former Lovelock inmate who was released on parole this year. Mostly, he said, “O.J. is just a regular dude. He does his job and he goes to his cell.”
If Simpson’s mundane and routine life on the inside is hidden from all but fellow inmates and guards, on the outside his life has become the subject of heightened fascination by millions, thanks to two acclaimed TV series that revisit the “trial of the century.”
His acquittal in 1995 of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman provides the climax of the FX drama series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” nominated for 22 Emmy Awards. The Primetime Emmy Awards will air live at 4 p.m. Sunday on ABC.
Another program, the five-part ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which explores the racial history of Los Angeles through the lens of Simpson’s life, has garnered critical plaudits, and is being touted for Academy Award consideration. The nearly eight-hour documentary explores the double homicide as well as the 2007 armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas that ultimately put him in jail.
For all their acclaim, however, it is unlikely that Simpson has seen either program. Simpson, who didn’t respond to a request for comment sent via prison email, has a TV in his cell and watches sports religiously, according to those who have had contact with him in prison, including his former manager and a retired guard. But the prison limits what inmates can view. Nevada Dept. of Corrections spokeswoman Brooke Keast said there are about 10 to 15 approved channels — including educational channels and local stations — and FX isn’t one.
Though inmates generally can watch ESPN, they weren’t allowed to view the Simpson documentary. “It is inappropriate and can be a safety and security risk to transmit information about an inmate to the rest of the inmate population,” Keast said.
It remains unclear if Simpson will be able to watch the Emmy broadcast, which is likely to feature brief clips from the FX series. Keast said state prisons get ABC and it would be up to officials at individual prisons to block a program if they feel there’s a safety or security issue. But she said she has received no confirmation from Lovelock either way.
Simpson wasn’t visited or interviewed by actors or producers of the FX series for insight into his perspective.
“I didn’t feel the need to meet him, to see him in prison in his present condition,” explained Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Simpson on the show, noting that the series focused on the years before his current imprisonment.
O.J.’s life behind bars
The O.J. of the FX series might be shocked to see the O.J. of today. Simpson’s home for the last eight years, Lovelock, could hardly be further from his past: the bustling campus of USC where he first came to fame, the bright lights of NFL stadiums, his upscale Brentwood residence, the tense Los Angeles courtroom where he was acquitted of murder.
The small rural town sits 90 miles northeast of Reno on Interstate 80, amid scenic mountains, cow pastures and a smattering of small casinos. Its civilian population is about 2,000 — barely more than the 1,680 inmates at its medium-security men’s state prison, where Simpson was sent after being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping.
The inmates include convicted murderers and rapists. Still, the prison is known as one of the better correctional facilities in Nevada for serving time — a prison that most inmates would choose if they could.
Simpson landed here for his role in the Las Vegas incident — a botched operation that he claimed was an attempt to retrieve property that he claimed belonged to him, including sports memorabilia in the possession of two dealers.
During the sentencing, Judge Jackie Glass rebuked Simpson after he suggested that he had merely acted out of stupidity. “Earlier in this case, at a bail hearing, I asked — said — to Mr. Simpson I didn’t know if he was arrogant or ignorant or both,” the judge said. “And during the trial and through this proceeding, I got this answer, and it was both.”
Early in his sentence, Simpson had trouble adjusting to life in lockdown, becoming sullen and introverted, according to Norman Pardo, his former manager, who said he visited his client during his first few years in jail.
He stayed to himself and really just wanted “to be left alone,” said Pardo. He described Simpson as “depressed” during this period.
Though Simpson was initially a loner at Lovelock and had some trouble with fellow prisoners, he has since evolved into a model inmate determined to make parole — which could happen as early as next year, when Simpson will be 70.
“I would say 99.9% of inmates like him — they look up to him,” said Jeffrey Felix, a retired Lovelock prison guard who said he had contact with Simpson for several years and wrote a book about the experience titled “Guarding the Juice.”
At Lovelock, “there are no violent incidents. It’s a kickback kind of place,” said William Mark Clarke, a retired Nevada corrections officer. He said Simpson would have a tougher time in other Nevada facilities, such as the Southern Desert Correctional Center, which have more gang activity.
The cell that Simpson usually shares with one other inmate is about 125 square feet in size, and about 25% larger than the average Lovelock cell. There is a double bunk and Simpson sleeps on the bottom bunk, according to Felix. The former guard added that each prison unit has four larger cells and Simpson just happened to get assigned one, though he didn’t know if it was a random cell assignment.
The prison spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment directly on Simpson’s living conditions but said that cell sizes are uniform with the exception of handicapped cells that are a bit larger to accommodate wheelchairs.
Simpson, who attended USC from fall 1967 to spring 1969 but didn’t complete a degree, has taken some of the vocational training and educational classes at Lovelock that allow prisoners to pursue a high school and even college degree. He said during a 2013 parole hearing, “I find the courses somewhat educational even though it’s tough to hear other guys’ things.”
After initially being withdrawn, Simpson in recent years has become more social, mingling with fellow prisoners who often refer to him by his nickname, “Juice.”
"O.J. has always been an upbeat guy. I just don’t think [being in prison] is going to set him back,” said Joe Bell, a childhood friend who said he has kept informed of Simpson’s activity through the ex-athlete’s family. Bell said that he is unable to visit Lovelock because of his own record.
Added Bell: “O.J is still a really popular guy amongst guys. Most people who follow football relish the opportunity to be in his presence.” Simpson still gets fan mail and is thinking of resuming his lucrative autographing business if he is released, according to Bell and Felix, the retired guard.
He is also benefiting from the facility’s relatively comfortable standard of living.
For a period, Simpson wasn’t watching what he was eating and gained weight, according to Pardo, his former manager. Typical dinners at Lovelock, considered better than in other Nevada prisons though still standard cafeteria fare, include tacos, spaghetti and lasagna. And Simpson has a weakness for cookies, which perhaps aggravated his diabetes. Once a paragon of athleticism, his frame grew thicker, his face puffier.
But the former football star now tries to keep in shape despite the knee problems that stem from his athlete days. He walks laps around the prison’s quarter-mile track and works out at the prison gym, which features about 15 weight machines and some stationary bikes.
Though his knees keep him from competing in sports, he coaches prison sports teams and umpires games. Recently, Simpson became prison softball league commissioner, which involves overseeing umpires, deciding questions about rules and monitoring games.
“He was real low key,” said Randy Gaess, a former Lovelock inmate who said he umpired softball games alongside Simpson.
“He would [umpire] behind home plate because there was little movement necessary. We would talk if we had to about the calls.”
In recent weeks, Simpson skipped his regular walks around the track “because of his knees,” said Gaess, who was released in August. “He doesn’t spend as much time there as he used to.”
For the most part, Simpson gets along with other inmates, though that hasn’t always been the case with some of his cellmates because they often end up feeling treated like “his servants,” said Felix, the former guard. “They clean and he buys the food,” from the prison commissary.
Felix said that Simpson has kept a photo of himself and Nicole Brown Simpson on a shelf in his cell. Prison officials would not confirm if Simpson does so.
O.J. faces uncertain future
However different Simpson’s life on the outside was from his fellow inmates, he has one thing in common with everyone on the inside: He wants to get out.
“He’s the perfect candidate for parole. That’s all he thinks about. If he gets into a conflict [with another inmate], he backs out. He wants to be a free man again,” said Felix, the retired prison guard.
In 2013, the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners noted Simpson’s positive disposition when they granted him parole on some of his convictions, including kidnapping and robbery, but he remained behind bars on other counts, including assault with a deadly weapon.
At the hearing, a parole official described Simpson as being “disciplinary free.” Simpson said that other inmates even seek his counsel. “I advise a lot of guys and I like to think I keep a lot of trouble from happening,” he told the parole board.
He also expressed remorse for the Las Vegas incident, telling the board that he didn’t intend to rob anyone. “At no point did I go there to take any property that didn’t belong to me,” he said.
These days Simpson is said to be focusing on his children. “Family always has been important to him. That’s all he thinks about — there’s really nothing else that matters,” said Pardo, his former manager.
Simpson has two grown children with Nicole — Sydney, 30, and Justin, 27, who both reside in Florida. He has a son, Jason, 46, and daughter, Arnelle, 47, with his first wife, Marguerite.
Simpson stays in contact with family and friends by phone. His children declined to comment and have generally avoided talking about their father to the media. When reached by phone, Arnelle, who wrote a letter of support to parole officials on behalf of all four children, declined to comment.
Even if he is paroled next year, Simpson’s legal woes won’t be over. He will likely face a mountain of financial obligations, including the $33.5-million judgement against him in the 1997 civil case for the murders of his ex-wife and Goldman.
He “has never honored or paid one single penny of the judgment,” Fred Goldman, father of Ron Goldman, told The Times.
The Goldman family wants “to enforce the judgment so that Simpson doesn’t profit from what he did,” said Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for the family. Any payments would be divided between the Goldmans and the Browns.
Those who have spoken to Simpson at Lovelock said that he is preoccupied with financial challenges he will face if and when he is released. He continues to draw an NFL pension that some reports have estimated as high as $19,000 per month. The NFL declined to comment. (Simpson played for the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers.)
He also receives an unknown amount of royalties from his movies, which include the science fiction thriller “Capricorn One” and “The Naked Gun” comedy trilogy, and TV shows.
As he serves his time, his legal saga has become a lucrative business for many people, but not Simpson. The FX series was a ratings windfall, coming in as the most-watched new series on cable so far this year. (Netflix recently acquired the global streaming rights.) Yet another series based on the murder case is set to arrive in early 2017: “Hard Evidence: O.J. Is Innocent,” on the Investigation Discovery channel, is a documentary that is expected to propose a new suspect in the case.
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A parole could happen as early as October 2017, when he will have served the minimum nine years of his sentence. If he is denied, a mandatory parole review is scheduled for April 2022, according to the prison.
Some think parole won’t necessarily be an easy touchdown for the former athlete. “I’m not optimistic,” said Bell, his friend from childhood. “I know parole boards. They’re going to insist that he killed Nicole, even though they’re not supposed to consider that. But they do.”
He said he hopes time in jail will have made Simpson a humbler person and less obsessed with fame.
“But knowing O.J. as I do,” Bell said, “he’s got such a tremendous ego and persona.”
Credits: Produced by Sean Greene