Nine cells down from mine, along a San Quentin tier, yellow crime scene tape stretches across the bars of cell 2-A-36.
That’s where John Sullivan took his last breaths on the night of March 9, 2021, after allegedly being beaten to death by his cellmate, Sammeon Waller.
Although Sullivan’s death won’t be counted among the COVID-19 tally, closer insight reveals the domino effect set into motion by administrative mistakes made in the aftermath of one of the world’s worst outbreaks.
The two men, Waller– young and Black, and Sullivan– old and White, should never have been forced to share a cramped 4’ x 11’ x 8’ cell together. Each had previously lived alone for months in South Block’s Badger section.
But on February 18, San Quentin administration rehoused all prisoners from single-person Badger cells into the Alpine unit. Badger was completely emptied to prepare for an expected new group of arrivals from California county jails.
Initially, those of us being moved were assured we would be simply relocating to new cells but still be housed alone.
Then, the announcement came over Badger’s loudspeaker: “Find a cellmate you can get along with… or we will find one for you.”
Sullivan and Waller soon became thrust into a living arrangement neither had asked for.
Traditionally, California prisons do not arbitrarily house prisoners of different races together in a cell. Racial problems between individuals tend to spill over into much larger disputes within an incarcerated population, sometimes ending in riots or bloodshed.
More and more, however, such considerations are overlooked against the ever-evolving backdrop of COVID-19.
After almost every single San Quentin resident had been infected with the virus at some time between June and August, 28 prisoners lost their lives. Our incarcerated community always bears the brunt of adapting to the endless shuffling of our housing situations.
One cell is just as good as any other, right? Any two prisoners can tolerate each other if they must, right?
By most accounts, Sullivan and Waller made the best of it and got along well enough. Until they didn’t.
“As soon as I noticed a Black and White guy celled up like that, I asked them if they wanted me to help get one of them moved,” an incarcerated porter who works on Alpine’s second tier told me. “But they said they was cool.”
Porters work the tiers cleaning, serving food, handing out supplies, etc., and they often function as an essential buffer between prisoners and correctional officers. Porters interact daily in some capacity with every cell along their assigned tier.
“They seemed ok whenever I stopped by,” the porter said. “They was laughing and smiling most of the time. The OG [Sullivan] said he [Waller] was a good youngster, maybe the best cellie he’s ever had.”
But a different porter said Sullivan went to officers on his own and asked if he could be moved. They told him, “Not right now. Maybe some other time.”
No one could have foreseen nor does anyone know for sure what went down on March 9 inside 2A-36. We all get locked in our cells by 9 p.m. each night before being visually counted. That’s the end of our daily program.
The next institutional count takes place after midnight, usually closer to 12:30 a.m. Officers walk the tiers quietly and peek into our cells using their flashlights. Some let their keyrings jingle unchecked to signal their approach.
Sometime between the two counts, Sullivan wound up dead; the flashlight check revealed his unresponsive body.
Neighbors in surrounding cells say they heard Waller tell the officers that he killed Sullivan by stomping on him 25 times.
Officers instantly cuffed Waller and led him downstairs and into a holding cage.
The entire Alpine unit could hear the sounds of CPR as emergency responders counted out the chest compressions. But all of us could hear in the dismal tone of their voices that the CPR was pointless. They were just going through the motions. We all knew it.
Many prisoners now recall hearing loud thumping sounds a little after 10:00 p.m., but at that time, no one attributed the noise to violence.
Typical in-cell altercations include emotional outbursts, angry or aggressive declarations, cries of pain – some sort of vocalization. There apparently was none of that on this night.
Just thuds… and silence. Dead silence.
Several witnesses in nearby cells said they heard the responding officers talk about Waller’s statement that Sullivan had attempted something sexual with him, had tried touching him somewhere inappropriate.
A few guys told me that they heard some statements about Waller striking Sullivan in the head with a television. We’re each allowed to own up to a 15-inch flatscreen.
Prisoners, who live between 2-A-36 and the unit’s central staircase or those in cells along the front half of the first floor, said they saw Sullivan’s body go out on a stretcher, his face misshapen and brutalized, bloodstains coagulating down his neck.
“I wish I hadn’t seen that,” one of Sullivan’s and Waller’s neighbors told me. “Most of the time, with a dead body, you know… they cover it up.
“But damn, they just carried him out as is. That shit kinda shook me up.”
Alpine unit was placed under lockdown for over 24-hours pending an administrative investigation.
Two days later, I looked through the bars of 2-A-36. I saw no signs of blood anywhere. Sullivan’s grey vinyl mattress seemed bare and clean. I couldn’t get a direct view of the back corner. One of my peers surmised that Sullivan was probably killed back there and lay crumpled in that corner until his body was discovered.
The cell still contained Waller and Sullivan’s personal property, stacked and stuffed wherever space would allow.
None of us perceived any tension between the two, but we all agree that mentally there always seemed to be something “off” about Waller. His hesitant posture, his aloof mannerisms, his vacant wide-eyed expressions above his face mask – it felt abnormal and amiss, but not advertently menacing or dangerous.
I remember Waller running and sprinting out on the yard. All alone out there, he’d sporadically mutter and yell to himself– or maybe he was yelling at things the rest of us just couldn’t see.
Once the Alpine lockdown ended and gossip circulated, Sullivan’s criminal past as a sex offender became common knowledge.
Prison culture places absolute stigma and disdain against sex offenders. Sullivan is now perpetually tagged as a sexual predator and, most likely, a “cho-mo,” or child molester- the most vile of all low-lifes.
Murder may be an extreme remedy, but if Sullivan had said or done anything sexual to Waller, the court of incarcerated opinion leans toward Waller for now.
Sharing a tiny living space with another person can be challenging to anyone’s mental fortitude, even under the most normal of circumstances. COVID shutdowns in prison naturally ramped up all those frustrations.
As soon as Alpine’s one-day lockdown ended, officers directed a porter to go around asking if any cellmates would prefer to be separated into available empty cells. Lots of guys jumped at that opportunity.
Those empty cells in Alpine were available the whole damn time since they moved us over here. Badger section also still remains completely empty and unused a full month after we all got rehoused.
Meanwhile, nothing can bring Sullivan back, and Waller faces murder charges and a potential lifetime behind bars after surviving COVID-19 inside San Quentin and living through the grating rigors of being quarantined, rehoused and locked into cells all day with little programming or sunlight.
For Part I, Death in the Midnight Hour, 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.