The facts are disheartening but, sadly, not unusual. In 1981, Jarvis Jay Masters, a handsome, six-foot-tall, 19-year-old African American from southern California, was sentenced to twenty years in San Quentin State Prison for armed robbery—a charge he has never disputed. But just four years later, his incarceration took a disastrous turn. He was convicted of conspiring in the murder of a prison guard and in 1990 was sentenced to death. Now 60, Jarvis—as everyone calls him—has spent the past thirty-two years on death row, twenty-one of those years in solitary confinement, for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit. He didn’t help plan the crime, was locked in his cell on another tier when it occurred, didn’t fit the eyewitness’s description, and despite compelling exculpatory evidence—including recanting testimony by the two other inmates convicted of the crime—California has repeatedly upheld Jarvis’s conviction on appeal. With all Jarvis’s state court appeals exhausted, the case was scheduled to have been heard in federal court on October 27. The goal? To “vacate the criminal judgment and sentence entered against him”—affirm his innocence, and order his release from prison. The hearing did not take place, however, and the judge announced that he will issue a written order.
What makes Jarvis Masters’s situation so compelling is that for more than thirty years, he’s been a Buddhist practitioner. He received the precepts in 1991 from the late Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama in the Nyingma tradition, in a ceremony held in San Quentin—a first. “From the moment I met . . . Chagdud Rinpoche, I wanted to learn how to find some measure of peace,” he has said. Since then, for many years, Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the Shambhala tradition and the principal teacher of Gampo Abbey, has been his spiritual mentor and close friend—so close that Jarvis calls her “Mama.” Chödrön is among those firmly convinced of his innocence.
Oprah Winfrey heard about Jarvis from Chödrön and became another vocal champion of his innocence after reading his 2009 memoir, That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row. Never one to sit idly by, Oprah arranged high-powered legal representation for Jarvis—attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis, a top international law firm that took the case pro bono—and this September named That Bird Has My Wings as her book club selection. She would have featured the book when she first read it in 2014, Oprah said, but it was not until this year that authorities finally gave her permission to interview Jarvis—by telephone only.
Jarvis Masters received critical acclaim for his first book, Finding Freedom, subtitled Writings from Death Row, when it was published in 1997 with the assistance of writer and Soto Buddhist lay teacher Susan Moon, then editor of Turning Wheel, where she published some of Jarvis’s first pieces. Finding Freedom is a collection of these and other short essays about Jarvis’s life behind bars and his awakening to Buddhism. It includes his poem “Recipe for Prison Pruno,” now a prison lit classic, which tied for third place in the 1992 PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest. (The 2020 edition of Finding Freedom is subtitled How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart—indicative of how far Jarvis has come—and includes two new chapters and a new afterword.)
Finding Freedom is alternately funny, eye-opening, and at times painful to read. That Bird Has My Wings is even grittier. A searing account of Jarvis’s hellacious life from his earliest years of poverty, neglect, and violence, the reality it depicts is heart-stopping. Abandoned at age 5 by a heroin-addicted mother and abusive father, he suffered unimaginable abuse as he was shuffled through California’s foster system, group homes, and juvenile detention facilities, until a cycle of petty crime and life on the lam escalated to armed robbery and landed him in San Quentin in 1981. The maximum-security prison in Marin County, north of San Francisco, has been his home ever since.
Like many inmates, Jarvis bore the physical and emotional scars of a brutal childhood—cuts, bruises, and burns inflicted by sadistic caretakers. Virtually the only light in the unrelenting darkness of his youth came with a brief stay in the caring embrace of one elderly foster couple and the attention of a few counselors who saw potential in the bright, athletic, and loving boy. For all the loss and abuse, Jarvis never lost his devotion to family: As a child, he took care of his little sisters and addicted mother, and mourned the crib death of his infant brother. Ultimately, his loyalty to family—and his desperation to belong somewhere—was his downfall, after he became enmeshed in the criminal life of his relatives.
“It is almost unimaginable to think of what I might be like if I didn’t have the dharma, my teacher, Chagdud Tulku, and the love and care of my friends.” —From the epilogue to Finding Freedom
But it was by tapping into his deeply buried well of goodness and compassion that Melody Ermachild Chavis, a criminal investigator hired to assist in Jarvis’s defense, turned his world around. Shortly after he was thrown in “the hole”—solitary confinement—she introduced the sullen young prison gang member to meditation and writing, lifelines that have carried him through the unremitting, gratuitous cruelty of time on death row. With the support of Buddhists like Chavis, Sue Moon, Lisa Leghorn (Lama Shenpen Drolma), Chagdud Tulku’s assistant, and others, Jarvis delved deep into his abusive and violent past. Then, with the only writing implement he was allowed—the flimsy ink cartridge from a ballpoint pen—he recorded his revelations in brave and affecting prose. Often he wrote with Chavis, the two seated on either side of the plexiglass barrier in the visitors’ cage. When he was finally moved out of solitary onto the “regular” death row tier in 2007, he was allowed a typewriter—a gift from one of the generous friends who had gathered around him by then.
There are no statistics on how many practicing Buddhists there are in American prisons. It’s a violation of privacy for the authorities to keep records of prisoners’ religious affiliations. But since the early ’80s, a number of Buddhist projects have sprung up to serve the incarcerated. Many are led by former inmates, who are intimately aware of the loneliness, violence, and indignities prisoners face on a daily basis. Jarvis Masters was a maverick, introducing Buddhist practice to fellow inmates who saw what it had done for him. Through a sympathetic prison chaplain, Jarvis arranged classes in Buddhism that he was only occasionally allowed to attend.
Early on, he took the four noble truths to heart, recognizing that suffering is suffering, wherever it is found. Living by the bodhisattva vow, “I saw how I could compassionately use all my human imperfections . . . the physical state of my imprisonment and even the neighbor of the execution chamber as ways to benefit others,” he wrote in “Keeping It Real,” an essay in Finding Freedom. He helped calm suicidal and homicidal inmates, ease tensions in the exercise yard, and prevent attacks on prisoners and guards. He saved the life of at least one grateful guard and earned the respect of others who noted his demeanor as they took him to and from the yard or meetings with visitors. California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, and Governor Newsom has announced plans to shut down San Quentin’s death row. But with the ever-present threat of execution hanging over his head for so many years, Jarvis remains intimately aware of the truth of impermanence. In “On the Question of Time,” an essay in the 2020 edition of Finding Freedom, he writes, “When we are truly able . . . to constantly be in the present and see this moment in all that we are, with no time to shelter hate, keep bitterness in our hearts, or bring hurt and pain to others, every instant of our lives can be appreciated fully right now . . . ”
Often cited as a model of redemption by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, he has said that the way he was headed, he doubts he would have survived if he’d remained on the outside. Chagdud Tulku told him he was “fortunate to be in a place where you can know humanity’s suffering and learn to see the perfection of all beings and yourself.” Still, Jarvis is candid about his situation. “To find a home in San Quentin, I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive,” he wrote in Finding Freedom. He brushes aside any suggestion that he’s some sort of “saint.” He still gets angry at injustice but has learned through practice to hold his tongue and bring peace to potential hot spots.
Jarvis was briefly married after an extended courtship in which he and his fiancée were never allowed to physically touch. But after he lost his 2009 appeal, he initiated divorce. The pain of knowing he might never be released was too great to bear for them both. Today, phone calls, visits by friends and family, and wide-ranging correspondence stave off the inevitable loneliness of life behind bars. Longtime writing and meditation partners continue to come by, along with more recent friends like the writer Rebecca Solnit, who said she admired “the ways he’s managed to make, in some ways, a good life within the most horrific limits imaginable.”
Jarvis’s writings have given him wide exposure, and he regularly receives letters from prisoners and ex-cons, gang members and former gang members, young people, and myriad others who share tales of their own challenges and seek his advice. His books are taught in classrooms—or at least they were until the current book-banning frenzy—and teachers forward letters from their students. He tries to answer every letter he receives.
Jarvis has a wide network of supporters—“Jarvanistas,” as they call themselves. The website Free Jarvis tracks the campaign to exonerate him, and progress in his fight for freedom is also chronicled on the Free Jarvis Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. The podcast series Dear Governor follows his case and includes an episode with David Sheff, author of The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place. A meaty biography of Jarvis, the book is based on extensive conversations between the two. Others support Jarvis in different ways. His good friend Hozan Alan Senauke, a poet and Soto Zen priest who is abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center and the former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, attended Jarvis’s court hearings to bring him firsthand reports of the proceedings. Jarvis has even been the inspiration for a piece by a hip-hop theater company that promotes social justice.
Jarvis’s upcoming appeal includes charges of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the injustices cited on the Free Jarvis site are “severe violations of his civil and constitutional rights, while being deprived [of] the opportunity to prove his innocence and present all the facts to the court.” Michael F. Williams, the Kirkland & Ellis partner who heads Jarvis’s legal team, says, “In my twenty-one years of practicing law as a trial lawyer on criminal matters, I have never seen such an egregious case of injustice. Exonerating Jarvis is the right thing to do not only legally but ethically. Justice is not served until he is free.”
Once again, Jarvis awaits his fate. “As I sit in this 9 by 4-foot cell, day in and day out,” he posted on freejarvis.com, “I keep waiting, hoping the courts will finally listen. At the very least, I hope my story is a stark reminder that there are many innocent individuals behind bars. I am still fighting for my freedom, but the problems in our justice system are much larger than one man.”
Jarvis is often asked by other prisoners what he thinks freedom means. “I say, ‘Freedom is about keeping who you really are real with you.’” It’s a maxim he lives by, one that makes the genesis of his autobiography title—That Bird Has My Wings—all the more understandable. As Jarvis tells it, one summer morning he was standing in the prison yard, admiring the beauty of Mount Tamalpais in the distance and wishing he could “soar above this minefield of high-powered fences and gun-powered bricks and find my place up there.” Just then, a young prisoner came by bouncing a basketball; he told Jarvis he bet he could hit a seagull that was walking across the yard. As the kid took aim, Jarvis grabbed his arm. Why had he done that, the young man wondered. “Why?” Jarvis replied. “You ask me why? ‘Cause, man, that bird has my wings, that’s why!”
Update: This article originally stated that a hearing was scheduled for October 27, but a representative for Jarvis Jay Masters’s legal team since stated that the October 27 hearing did not take place and that the judge announced that he will issue a written order.
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