SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (March 10, 2021) — One of my neighbors died in his cell last night.
Sounds of institutional chaos rattled me awake at 12:55 a.m. I had just knocked out about a half hour earlier, so my senses fought against focus.
I heard the military-like punch of officers’ voices interspersed with the echoing squelch of radio chatter.
From my second tier cell, I struggled to gauge exactly where the commotion came from. The concrete and steel acoustics both distort and enhance the noises in here, depending on the source’s location. Was it somewhere above me? San Quentin’s Alpine unit where I live holds five tiers of 50 cells each. Was it downstairs on the ground floor somewhere?
I forced myself to get up and peer through the bars. The limited view showed me nothing. Whenever and whatever emergency activity was taking place, my ears were all I could rely on.
There was a loud buzzfeed from the officers’ radios. I heard “Alpine” and “ambulance” clearly between bursts of garble and static. It all sounded pretty close to my cell, but just beyond my line of sight.
Then came loud counting, “One, two, three…” all the way up to 30, with electronic beeps maintaining pace. A male voice, heavily laced with futility, held count. The beeping droned on, followed by an uncomfortable pause. Then the futile cadence started again, “One, two, three…”
Anticipating that they would try using an electrical fibrillator, I listened for someone to call out, “Clear!”
An officer ran past my cell to the left to take the back staircase down to the first tier. I knew then that the CPR was being administered on my tier, off to the right of my cell. I wondered if it was a friend, an acquaintance or someone I’d barely remember.
I heard one officer reporting to others, perhaps over the radio, “We have another inmate in a holding cell.”
If two people share a cell, where there is a death, it’s standard CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) protocol for the cellmate to be sent to the hole, or administrative separation, until the evidence shows he didn’t play a part in the incident.
For the last few rounds of the 30-counts, I could hear multiple voices sounding off together, “One, two, three…”
Dead silence usually commands these hours, but I was sure the entire building’s residents were awake and listening. As a journalist, I wished I had more of a bird’s eye view. As a human being, I appreciated being away from the action’s vertex.
After the counting stopped, all I could hear were the ambient sounds of mechanical human movement. All of us in our cells lay quiet as officers keyrings jangled and the shuffle of tactical boots jolted along walkways and stairs. Emergency medical responders were likely using the main central staircase to my far right.
I pulled the covers over my eyes, hoping to find sleep again as quickly as possible. We were unlikely to learn anything until the morning. Especially in the COVID-19 era, we never know what the administration might spring on us each day, so I wanted to be somewhat well-rested.
“Code three ambulance call to scene — 1:18,” was the last radio transmission I heard.
I had no idea what “code three” meant.
The morning brought a complete shutdown of prisoner movement in Alpine. Officers brought in our breakfast trays without the usual help of incarcerated porters.
Afterward, I could hear them talking off to the side about how they had received a call to keep everyone locked in.
When an officer passed by, I asked about my ability to access the phones that day. Alpine had payphones on wheels that porters usually move from cell to cell. Her answer was yes.
Normally, prisoners leave their cells to get their daily medications from a nurse at the med window, but today nurses came to the cells to hand them out. The only movement I witnessed was for scheduled medical appointments, for which small groups of prisoners were escorted to and from the medical facility.
In the afternoon, I was glad to see Officer Adame working his way down the tier with the payphone.
“Someone did die last night, right?” I asked him when it was my turn. “That’s why we’re on lockdown right now?”
Adame nodded his head.
“How’d it go down?,” I asked. “Suicide? Overdose? Sexual Assault?”
All I got was a shrug of shoulders and a silent raise of eyebrows. The mask he wore to protect himself against COVID-19 prevented any other discernible facial expression.
From my past experiences, I expected Alpine to remain under this modified lockdown until investigators finalized their reports of the death.
Prisoner gossip around my cell eventually pinpointed the fatality to have occurred in cell 236.
I only found out from a friend outside, who had seen a news report that the dead man was John Sullivan who had been serving a 10-year sentence for failing to register as a sex offender. His cellmate Sammeon Waller was suspected of homicide.
For “Part II: COVID-19 Surrounds San Quentin Murder,” click here.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.