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HomeMeditationDiscovering Freedom: The Demise Row Journey of Jarvis Jay Masters

Discovering Freedom: The Demise Row Journey of Jarvis Jay Masters


Susan Moon on the non secular journey of Jarvis Jay Masters, a Buddhist practitioner on loss of life row at San Quentin Jail. First printed in Lion’s Roar journal 2007. Learn our 2010 evaluation of Jarvis Jay Grasp’s e-book, That Fowl Has My Wings.

San Quentin Jail. Picture by Telmo.

Jarvis Masters lives on a main piece of actual property beside San Francisco Bay, in dear Marin County, California. However he can’t see the gorgeous view of the town or the waves lapping on the shore as a result of the window of his San Quentin cell faces the opposite manner, into the jail yard. Jarvis is now forty-five, and San Quentin has been his house since he was nineteen.

I’ve been corresponding with Jarvis for a few years and visiting him for about 5. Once I drive throughout the Richmond Bridge to speak to Jarvis about his life as a Buddhist prisoner and his writing, I see his house forward of me, lit by the early morning solar, floating within the bay like a fairy-tale palace with a golden, crenellated tower. However once I get to the guests’ parking zone, the magical turret is unmistakably a gun tower.

Jarvis entered jail with a seven-year sentence for armed theft. He has lengthy since served out his sentence for crimes he did commit, however he’s nonetheless in jail, on loss of life row, for a criminal offense that many imagine he did not commit. Throughout his life in jail, he has develop into a Buddhist, finding out first with the Tibetan grasp Chagdud Tulku after which with Pema Chödrön. His well-received first e-book, Discovering Freedom: Writings from Demise Row, appeared in 1997. He’s ending his second now, tentatively titled That Fowl Has Wings: The Autobiography of an Harmless Man.

I’ve to undergo many boundaries to get to Jarvis. First, I wait exterior the gatehouse for a guard to buzz me in. Inside, my papers and pockets are checked, and the officer on responsibility seems me up on the pc to verify I’ve a correct appointment. I go by way of a steel detector and my wrist is stamped. Contained in the fence, I stroll up the hill to the jail itself, stopping midway to take off my footwear once more and undergo a second steel detector. A recent breeze comes throughout the water, and I see the view of the spires of San Francisco that Jarvis by no means sees. Once I attain the jail wall, I wait beside a grated door referred to as the sally port, till the guard inside notices me and opens the door electronically, which lets me into a little bit vestibule. I push my ID by way of a slot on the backside of the window and inform the guard I’ve an appointment to go to Jarvis Masters. He opens the inside door into the visiting space.

At first this entire course of was scary. Now I faux to myself that I’ve gotten used to it, although it’s not one thing you possibly can ever actually get used to.

It’s like a legendary journey to see some sensible instructor who waits on the interior core of a maze. However this instructor wears jail blues.

I am going down the corridor within the non-contact visiting part, wanting into every window as I stroll by, till I see Jarvis, finally, sitting in a cell on the opposite aspect of the bulletproof glass. He smiles and we decide up the telephones on both aspect of the window to speak. The boundaries drop away.

It’s like a legendary journey to see some sensible instructor who waits on the interior core of a maze. However this instructor wears jail blues and sweat pours down his face in his sizzling cell. He mops his brow with a handkerchief.

We discuss his life in jail. He tells me about ice. “Once I fell on the train yard and twisted my wrist,” he says, “they introduced me ice. At first I used to be indignant. No X-ray? No Ace bandage? They simply gave me ice and took me again to my cell. I hadn’t seen ice for years and years. I took a dice from the plastic bag and for some cause, I touched it to my brow. Then to 1 aspect and to the opposite aspect of my face. I rubbed it round my eyes, actually gradual, and chilly, attempting to recollect ice. What was it? This sense? My hand touched the ice to the pores and skin of my arm, all by itself. I misplaced my reminiscence—no ice, nothing. That was a visit!”

Jarvis was born in 1962, in Lengthy Seaside, California, considered one of seven youngsters. Jarvis’s mom and stepfather had been heroin addicts, and from the very starting of his life, he skilled violence, instability, and neglect. When he was 5, he and his siblings had been taken away from their mom, separated from one another, and despatched to foster properties.

Jarvis stayed in a loving house with an aged couple for a number of years, however by the point he was 9 his foster mother and father had develop into too outdated to care for him. After that, Jarvis was despatched to—and sometimes ran away from—a sequence of foster properties, group properties, and locked amenities for dependent youngsters. He stayed with an aunt for some time in a public housing venture, however he acquired into bother there. From the age of twelve on, he was out and in of establishments. As an indignant younger man of seventeen, he was launched from the California Youth Authority and went on a criminal offense spree, holding up shops and eating places till he was captured and despatched to San Quentin. He by no means shot anybody, however he did threaten his victims with a gun.

When Jarvis arrived at San Quentin in 1981, he did what many younger males do on coming into jail. In search of a way of belonging and safety, he grew to become concerned with a jail gang. In 1985, Sergeant Hal Burchfield was murdered by members of the gang. A prisoner reached by way of the bars of his cell on the second tier and stabbed Sergeant Burchfield with a spear comprised of a chunk of a mattress body and rolled-up paper. On the time, Jarvis was locked in his cell on the fourth tier.

Though many inmates had been suspected of conspiring to homicide Sergeant Burchfield, solely three had been tried, Jarvis amongst them. One was accused of being the “spear man,” one other—an older man—of ordering the killing, and Jarvis of sharpening the steel that was allegedly handed alongside and later used to make the spear. After a protracted trial, all three had been convicted. The principle proof in opposition to Jarvis was the testimony of different prisoners, a few of whom had been suspected of being rewarded by the prosecutor’s workplace for testifying, and most of whom have since recanted. The opposite two defendants had been sentenced to life with out parole. Jarvis, partly due to his violent background, was sentenced to loss of life. His appeals are actually pending earlier than the California Supreme Courtroom, which in February of this 12 months gave a positive response to Jarvis’s habeas corpus petition, requiring the Lawyer Basic to point out trigger why Jarvis mustn’t obtain a brand new trial.

It was in the middle of preparations for his loss of life penalty trial in 1990 that Jarvis was launched to Buddhist vows by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Chagdud Tulku got here down from Oregon to the jail to conduct an empowerment ceremony and continued to go to Jarvis repeatedly till his loss of life. Jarvis’s root instructor will at all times be Chagdud Tulku, who died in 2002, however he’s now a pupil of Pema Chödrön, whom he calls his “dharma mother.” Apply has been central to his with the ability to survive jail. “I’m in bother!” he says. “I observe as a result of I’m in bother, and observe is a should for me to be a self-disciplined individual. I already know what occurs once I don’t observe—it ain’t too cool.”

It’s difficult to meditate in jail, but it surely’s additionally the right place.

Jarvis tells me that jail has its execs and cons as an atmosphere for Buddhist observe. “It’s difficult to meditate in jail,” he says, “but it surely’s additionally the right place. Folks suppose they should get a pleasant new cushion to have the ability to meditate. I’d be that manner, too, if I had the selection. However I’m lucky to not have a brand new cushion. I really feel the onerous flooring. That is the place life is. Not figuring out what’s going to occur tomorrow has its manner of constructing time extra treasured. Once you’ve been sentenced to loss of life, you recognize you don’t have a lot time. You’re compelled to take a look at what’s, proper now. What are you able to do now to be of profit to others? To do it with out a cause, that’s the onerous half.”

Jarvis tries to maintain it easy when speaking to fellow prisoners and the guards about his Buddhist observe. In the future a guard saved watching Jarvis whereas he was meditating, so he instructed him in a joking voice, “Get off my entrance garden. You’re trespassing.”

Then the guard requested him, “What are you doing?”

“I’m attempting to get out of right here,” Jarvis replied. For the reason that guard was greater than doubtless wanting ahead to the top of the shift, this was a solution he might simply relate to, and he moved on.

Once I ask him whether or not fellow prisoners give him a tough time for being a Buddhist, he says, “I attempt to hold it mild. If different prisoners see me meditating they usually ask what I’m doing, I say, ‘Attempting to remain sane. You suppose I’m going to allow you to drive me loopy? What do you do?’”

One time once I was first meditating, it got here to me: I can’t climb the partitions, however I could make them disappear.

Whereas he finds it doable to make mild of his scenario and converse simply with others, the depth of his atmosphere and the ache there are by no means removed from his sight. “I’ve seen too many individuals go loopy in right here,” he says. “I determine you’ve acquired three selections. You’re both going to go loopy, or kill your self—simply go useless inside, in your soul if not your physique—or discover one thing to maintain you in a non secular realm. You’ve acquired to have a technique to care for your self when issues go improper, while you don’t get any mail or visits, otherwise you begin messing with your personal head, worrying about why they didn’t come to get you for the bathe on the common time.

“How do you get out of jail in jail? That’s the query I’ve been asking myself. We’re at all times a wall right here. One time once I was first meditating, it got here to me: I can’t climb the partitions, however I could make them disappear. I instructed this to Rinpoche when he visited me, and he smiled and simply snapped his fingers within the air. He had tears in his eyes.”

Till lately, Jarvis was housed within the Adjustment Middle, the utmost safety unit of the jail, in any other case generally known as “the outlet.” Prisoners there are allowed to go away the solitary confinement of their cells solely thrice per week for train, and for “non-contact” visits. (Some prisoners not often or by no means have guests, however because of the associations he has made by way of Buddhism and his writing, Jarvis has many buddies who come to see him, as soon as they’ve been by way of an in depth approval course of.) A couple of months in the past, after twenty-two years within the Adjustment Middle, Jarvis was lastly moved to East Block, the common loss of life row (how “common” can loss of life row be?) in a decrease safety part of the jail.

Throughout twenty-six lengthy, onerous years within the penitentiary, virtually all of them within the Adjustment Middle, Jarvis has modified radically. An enormous a part of that change has been Buddhism, however his writing has additionally been extraordinarily essential, as an outlet for him, as a technique to talk with the world exterior, and as an inspiration to others—prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Jarvis had little or no education, and his writing voice is self-taught. His first piece to be printed, “Scars,” appeared in Wingspan in 1991 and has been anthologized many instances since. He has written incessantly for Turning Wheel: The Journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and for different publications. His first e-book, Discovering Freedom, was printed by Padma Publishing, the publishing department of Chagdud Tulku’s neighborhood in Oregon. It’s now in its third printing.

I can depart San Quentin by being a author.

Jarvis feels that writing might have rescued him from the deep isolation and dearth of significant interplay inside the jail partitions. “Writing extends me outward. I’ve to do it,” he says. “I can depart San Quentin by being a author. I even have the chance to interrupt by way of the stereotypes individuals have about prisoners. One other good factor I’ve skilled by way of writing is that everybody has a tragic and exquisite story, and I’m similar to everybody else. That’s the largest shock. I’ve the identical human emotions. However with out writing, I wouldn’t see that.”

It’s exceptional how, within the excessive confinement of the Adjustment Middle, Jarvis, with the assistance of Chagdud Tulku and his different dharma supporters, has educated himself to be nonviolent and to make a contribution to the world round him, inside jail and past, by way of his friendships and his writing.

“Writing takes you deeper into your self,” he says. “You meet a complete new individual while you begin writing about your self. You see what’s related in regards to the previous. I see how tousled I used to be, imagine me. A few of my previous experiences had been like a horror film. My subsequent e-book describes it. You don’t ever wish to get trapped within the expertise you’re remembering. You attempt to forgive—others and your self. You’re part of this one big expertise.”

His second e-book, That Fowl has My Wings: Autobiography of an Harmless Man, is nearing completion. I’m one of many individuals who has helped him with the enhancing, and I’m at all times moved by his potential to unfold his life earlier than us together with his writing. He provides me pages in his extraordinary handwriting: tiny, elegant, fluent, with excessive, curved risers. From a distance it won’t look like English—possibly Arabic, or Georgian. Within the Adjustment Middle, the one writing implement Jarvis was allowed was the insert of a ballpoint pen. In the future he shook the flimsy plastic tube at me from the opposite aspect of the window and stated, “My entire life flows out by way of this rattling sorry little factor!”

Once I write, I see that that is what Buddhist observe is—being there within the second, being proper there with others.

Meditation and writing is likely to be methods for a prisoner to retreat farther inward, however for Jarvis it seems to be fully the alternative. “I can relate to different individuals, particularly children, because of writing,” he says. “Buddhism helps me, too, as a result of it doesn’t play the blame recreation. Buddhist observe helps me write as a result of it helps me establish with different individuals. Once I write, I see that that is what Buddhist observe is—being there within the second, being proper there with others.

“My buddies in jail wish to be part of my writing. They inform me tales. When one thing dangerous occurs, or when one thing good occurs, they ask me to write down about it. They need that as a result of it humanizes them. You don’t get on loss of life row for nothing. However you’re nonetheless human. I’m into humanizing individuals. That’s the place I’m at.”

Jarvis shouldn’t be a giant proselytizer. “I strive to not use the phrase Buddhism, to not name myself a Buddhist,” he says. “I would like my observe to be my pure manner of being. I wish to act out of my coronary heart, out of one of the best components of myself.” Nonetheless, that manner of being is rubbing off on others.

“Lots of people in listed below are coming round,” he tells me. “They don’t see Buddhism as a faith; they see it as a type of meditation, or rest. A number of prisoners have been on loss of life row for a very long time now. There’s a restlessness. They wish to be taught endurance. They wish to be taught to sit down with their ideas, or higher but, with out them. There’s an absolute want for some type of non secular life. You come to this realization sooner or later—there’s no different technique to keep sane. Even the act of pretending to meditate, of simply sitting on the ground in the course of your cell with a Snickers bar, for instance, gives some anchor in your sanity.”

Earlier than I depart, we discuss his future. “I wish to write about issues exterior this jail,” he says. “I wish to write about nature. I wish to see a squirrel after which describe it. I wish to write to the sound of water, and describe that, too. I wish to be taught to hear to a different type of story sooner or later, and inform that story in methods I don’t, for now—only for now—precisely know. I don’t know the writing I’ll do on the day of my bodily freedom.”

Jarvis reaches out to the world together with his phrases, together with his eager for connection. Our visits are nonetheless “non-contact” visits, however Jarvis refuses that definition. Bulletproof glass doesn’t cease him from making contact time and again.

A guard involves get Jarvis when our visiting time is over. He has to crouch down awkwardly to succeed in his fingers by way of the porthole behind him, and the guard cuffs him. I believe we’re each startled and in some way embarrassed on the guard’s behalf that he has the job of turning Jarvis again right into a prisoner.

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