November 27, 2012

How a Buddhist on Death Row Helped Save My Life.

Jarvis is an easy man to respect and an easy man to love. What I learn from him all the time is what it really means to keep one’s vows of not harming and of helping other people in whatever ways one can. I always think, “If Jarvis can do it in those most challenging and difficult situations, I can do it too.” It is a continual aspiration from my heart that Jarvis Masters not be killed and that I have the pleasure of knowing him as a free man; a free man who I know will benefit all the people he encounters.

~ Pema Chödrön

It was at the lowest point I’d ever reached in my life that I read Jarvis Jay Masters’s book Finding Freedom.

I was in a drug rehabilitation facility in New Jersey after suffering a near fatal relapse, which resulted in a DUI conviction, which wasn’t my first and had the very strong probability of me facing jail time.

I was at a very miserable and desperate place in my life and not just because of the prospect of jail, but because I’d lost all hope and faith in life. I was not only ready to die, I welcomed it, the only problem was that I was too chicken shit to do anything about it. That’s probably a big part of the reason I was pulled over by a police cruiser on a Monday afternoon clocked doing 106 miles per hour, and given a breathalyzer test resulted in me blowing a .33 (the legal limit in Connecticut is .08). So yeah, there was most likely some subconscious suicidal stuff happening there.

It’s very hard for me to not only admit that to myself, but especially to those of you reading this article. My utter lack of concern for not only my own life, but those whom I could have harmed by my actions literally still makes my stomach turn when I think about it, while also making me feel like I want to crawl under a rock and hide. It’s embarrassing for me as well as still somewhat shocking that I could behave in such a way. Addiction, however, leads those consumed by it to some terribly dark and destructive places.

Part of my making a daily amends for those selfish actions is laying out my truth—both the good and the bad—for others hopefully to learn something from. I can’t worry about being judged by others anymore. I have done some terrible things in my life, with this certainly being one of the worst. It does however paint a perfect picture of where I was at mentally and emotionally, and what little lack of concern I had for life in general around the time I read Jarvis Jay Master’s Finding Freedom.

Following the DUI arrest, I checked myself into detox for six days followed by a two month inpatient rehabilitation program in New Jersey. When I arrived at the rehab, I was a mess. On top of my pending charges, I’d also lost the job I’d been at for over five years working with children at an elementary school (and rightfully so) due to the DUI and I was heartbroken over that as well. I really couldn’t have cared less about myself, or getting better, but like I previously said, I was too scared to take my own life and didn’t know what else to do. So I said “fuck it” and went to rehab.

Photo: Grosso

A few days into treatment, I met with one of the program directors who noticed a Medicine Buddha tattoo I had on my leg. We spent the next 20 minutes discussing the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron and other great Buddhist scholars when he asked me if I’d ever read anything by Jarvis Jay Masters. I vaguely knew his name as I’d heard Pema Chodron reference him before but had never taken the time to really familiarize myself with him or his books.

The following day, the program director brought in his copy of Finding Freedom for me to read. I thumbed through it quickly surmising a brief synopsis of  the book and saw that it was about an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row who’d found Buddhism while incarcerated.

While I initially wasn’t so sure about the innocent man part, I was absolutely intrigued by the combination of Buddhism & Death Row. Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for the Lockup type prison shows on MSNBC so it had my attention. The foreword, written by one of Jarvis’s defense investigators Melody Ermachild Chavis, immediately made me realize however, that this book was going to be much more than just an interesting read.

In the foreword, Melody does a wonderful job of summarizing Jarvis from childhood to present day (well, present day as of 1997 when she wrote it) touching on the dysfunctional family setting he was raised in, bouncing from foster home to foster home until finally, at 12 years old, he became a ward of the court due to his delinquency. At the age of 17, and being a very angry young man, Jarvis was released from the California Youth Authority, and proceeded to go on a crime spree holding up stores and restaurants until he was caught. He was then sent to San Quentin State Penitentiary at the age of 19 in 1981.

Melody’s foreword then goes on to discuss Jarvis’s charge of being an accomplice to the murder of Sergeant Howell Burchfield as he was accused of sharpening a makeshift spear that was used in the attack. Melody also provides much evidence in support of Jarvis’s innocence (I present much of this information later on in the article) as well as her personal experience with Jarvis Jay Masters, painting the picture of a man who found himself and freedom on Death Row.

Finding Freedom is a collection of stories, poems and essays written by Masters who used nothing more than a pen filler to write the book. It chronicles Jarvis’s experience and growth in San Quentin as well as gives the reader a glimpse into the terror faced by inmates on a daily basis. The stories are not all solemn however. I found myself laughing quite often at the way Jarvis and some of his fellow inmates pass their time and was also touched by the way Jarvis and many of his inmate brothers came to respect one another as family.

One of the stories I found most moving was of Jarvis making his own mala out of thread from his prison jeans, staples from an issue of Sports Illustrated and Tylenol as the beads over the course of five and a half hours. There are more stories with much deeper introspection and insight than that of the Tylenol mala. But at the time I read it, it was exactly the type of resilience and fortitude I needed to hear from someone else, someone who was in a much worse situation than I found myself in at the time.

Finding Freedom helped me to put my own shit into perspective and get off my pity pot. Sure, I had some very valid things to be upset about. I’d hurt myself, my friends and family and others, but wallowing in it wasn’t going to change anything.

Finding Freedom was the catalyst I needed to truly put my life, and circumstances, into perspective.

I had a choice to make: Was I going to give up, do my time in rehab only to come out and go back to drinking myself to death. Or was I going to find the resolve that I knew burned in my heart, pick myself back up and begin making changes, no matter how difficult the process was?

Jarvis’s stories and situation helped me to believe I could do it and, luckily, I chose the latter of those two options. And today I’m at a place where I can do my best to try and help others in a similar fashion that Jarvis and his writing helped me.

Jarvis has also written a second book, That Bird Has My Wings, which is a profoundly moving memoir and would be of great benefit to any who read it. It’s noteworthy to mention That Bird Has My Wings features a foreword written by Pema Chodron and has received much acclaim from people such as Sister Helen Prejean, Jack Kornfield and even Desmond Tutu. Regarding That Bird, Tutu states:

One cannot be neutral in situations of injustice, and in his memoir, That Bird Has My Wings, Jarvis Jay Masters exposes the complex problems of a system that has resulted in a disproportionate number of blacks in the U.S. prison system. In the history of South Africa, we are not unfamiliar with this phenomenon. Forthright about his own failings as well, Masters’ truth has brought him reconciliation with the divine and with his best self. His memoir is a plea for reform, for a common humanity, and I share his hope that this moving story will redouble our efforts to make sure that every child matters.

It is with the sincerest of gratitude to Jarvis that I implore you to please take some time to learn about his case and support him in any way possible! Even if it’s something as simple as sharing this article, please help spread the word about this beautiful soul unjustly imprisoned. Maybe I’m a cockeyed optimist, but I believe in humanity, I truly do, and with that being said, I look forward to the day that I am able to give Jarvis a hug on the outside as a free man.

My sincerest thanks to Jarvis’ wife Kathrin for her overseeing of this article as well as helping me to coordinate a forthcoming interview with Jarvis in December in which I’ll speak with him from Death Row. The interview will be shared here very shortly thereafter.

In the meantime,  for more information about Jarvis and the current status of his appeals, go to www.freejarvis.org.

The following is reprinted with permission from www.freejarvis.org

Jarvis’s Background

Jarvis was born in 1962, in Long Beach, California, one of his mother Cynthia’s seven children. All of Cynthia’s children were raised in foster care because she was addicted to drugs. Jarvis’s father had left the family and later he too became an addict. Before the age of five Jarvis witnessed a great deal of violence and instability, of which he has written.

In a series of foster placements, Jarvis was separated from his siblings. For several years, he stayed in his favorite home, with an elderly couple he loved, but when they became too old to care for him, he was moved again, at the age of nine. After that, Jarvis ran away from several foster homes, always returning to the elderly people’s house. He was then sent to the county’s large locked facility for dependent children, and later to some more group homes. Once, he stayed with an aunt for a while in a poverty-stricken public housing project, but he got into trouble. At 12, he became a ward of the court because of delinquency, and was in and out of institutions after that. At his death penalty trial, several people who worked in such places testified that they recalled him as a smart and articulate youngster with a sense of humor and a lot of potential. But too many times, he was pushed—and he went—in the wrong direction.

Photo: Grosso

At the age of 17, when he was a very angry young man, he was released from the California Youth Authority and went on a crime spree, holding up stores and restaurants until he was captured and sent to San Quentin. He never shot anyone, but he did threaten his victims with a gun. He has been in San Quentin since the age of 19.

Jarvis has written:

“Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was.”

How Did Jarvis Get Sentenced to Death?

Jarvis Masters arrived in San Quentin in 1981 at the age of 19, convicted of armed robbery. Right away, Jarvis got involved in what the prison system calls a gang. Many young men coming into prison—black, brown and white—group together for protection and a sense of belonging, for family. Older prisoners of color often pass on valuable historical and political teachings about their peoples to younger men. But at the same time, prison gang families are too often rigidly hierarchical and violent, and they fail to offer young men the kind of help they need to mature and transform destructive and self-destructive patterns.

In 1985, an officer named Sergeant Howell Burchfield was murdered in San Quentin, stabbed to death at night on the second tier of a cell block. At the time, Jarvis Masters was locked in his cell on the fourth tier.

Although many inmates were suspected of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield, only three were tried, Jarvis among them. One was accused of being the “spear man” —of actually stabbing the sergeant. Another, an older man, was accused of ordering the killing. Jarvis was accused of sharpening a piece of metal which was allegedly passed along and later used to make the spear with which the officer was stabbed.

In one of the longest trials in California history, all three defendants were convicted of murder and of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield. But their sentences varied. After the penalty phase of the trial, one jury recommended the death penalty for the spear man, but the trial judge reduced his sentence to life without possibility of parole because of his youth and his relatively minimal criminal record. Another jury could not reach a verdict on the older man’s sentence. The District Attorney declined to re-try him, and so he was also given life without parole.

After hearing about Jarvis’s criminal history that same jury sentenced him to death, perhaps partly because of his violent background. Jarvis’s lawyers asked the trial judge for leniency, also on the basis of his youth—he was twenty-three when the crime occurred, just two years older than the convicted spear man. But she denied this request and sent Jarvis to death row. He has been there since 1990.

Photo: Grosso

Jarvis Becomes a Buddhist

Red Tara Comes to San Quentin: Taking Buddhist Vows in Prison

Jarvis Masters is a prisoner on Death Row in San Quentin. His story, “Joe Bob Listens,” appeared in the Fall 1995 issue of Turning Wheel. In 1989 he took his vows as a Tibetan Buddhist from the Tibetan teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, in prison. The following story of Jarvis’s “empowerment ceremony” is told in different parts. The introductory section is by Melody Ermachild, a Buddhist herself and a member of his legal team, who arranged for the Rinpoche’s visit. This is followed by Jarvis’s narration of the visit, and inserted into it is Melody’s transcription of what the Rinpoche said during the ceremony itself.

Introduction to Jarvis Masters’ Empowerment Ceremony by Melody Ermachild

When I got a call telling me that Chagdud Rinpoche would be able to come to San Quentin Prison to perform an empowerment ceremony for Jarvis Masters, one of my inmate clients, I rushed up to the prison to let him know that it would be the next day, so he could prepare himself.

Jarvis’s first reaction was fear. He wanted me to call and cancel the plan. He felt unworthy. I said that if he did not deserve the ceremony, if he was not a worthy person, no Tibetan Lamas would be coming around to see him. Just relax, I said. Just allow this good thing to happen. It will benefit you. Maybe the fact that you feel unworthy is a good thing, since the ceremony involves a lot of confession of wrongdoing. I think it’s good you’re scared, anyone would be. It shows you are taking it seriously. This is not happening on your schedule. You are just here. The Rinpoche is an old old man, he is ill, he is often not even in America. He happens to be nearby and ready to come to you tomorrow, so tomorrow is the day. So many things can still go wrong. If it happens at all it will be a miracle.

Photo: Grosso

The associate warden had already denied the request for the ceremony to take place inside a locked room, where the Lama would have been able to touch Jarvis. Unlike Catholic and Jewish baptisms, this Buddhist ceremony is not recognized by the Department of Corrections. The ceremony would have to take place through a glass window. The Rinpoche would not be able to bring into the prison any of the sacred objects with which he usually does the ceremony. On my way out, I asked the friendly older man who guards the visiting room if he would please give us the far telephone the next day in order to afford us some privacy. I told him that a real Tibetan Lama was coming to the prison. He said he had seen the movie, The Golden Child. “Is it going to be sort of like that?” he joked. “Is Eddie Murphy coming too?”

I arrived at the prison to find the Rinpoche and his interpreter, Tsering Everest, waiting on a hard bench in the crowded hallway outside the door to the visiting office. The hallway was jammed with waiting visitors, smoking, talking loudly, babies crying. The Rinpoche sat quietly, touching the beads of his rosary with his brown wrinkled fingers, his bright eyes taking in everything around him. He was quite a sight, in his floor-length burgundy skirt and his grey topknot and grey frizzled beard. As the noon hour time for the door to be opened grew closer, the crowd, which had been waiting since early morning, grew more tense. The Rinpoche himself had waited two hours. Right in front of him, two young women began to berate an older man in a loud dispute over their place in line. They cursed in vulgar street language, while the Rinpoche watched quietly.

With several people in line listening to him, the Rinpoche told a story of a Chinese prison in Tibet. He said the Chinese made thousands of Tibetans dig deep holes. The hole was the prison of the person digging it. In the hole they were fed, in the hole they slept, exposed to rain or cold. In the hole they died, and the hole became their grave. Sixty thousand people, the Rinpoche said, were so imprisoned in Tibet.

At last we were processed. The Rinpoche removed his shoes and jacket for searching and passed through the metal detectors. I ran ahead to start the process of having Jarvis brought out. By the time Jarvis appeared in the dim light on the other side of the scratched and dirty glass, the hall was already filled with wives and children visiting inmates at the other windows. Loud voices echoed in the hallway, cigarette smoke wafted over us. This was the setting for the ceremony.

The Rinpoche’s interpreter picked up the phone on our side of the glass. Jarvis leaned towards the glass, his phone pressed to his ear, a dim light barely illuminating his face from above. His smiling and slightly worried eyes were clearly visible.

“Is your mind clear?” the Rinpoche asked.

The Empowerment Ceremony by Jarvis Masters

When I was offered the chance to receive a spiritual empowerment by a Buddhist Tibetan Lama, the first feeling I remember was one of being undeserving. Then came fear at the thought of this ceremony being done where I was, in a violent state prison—San Quentin.

I was only a beginner in Buddhism. Through corresponding with people on the outside I had learned how to practice Buddhist meditation. It was, for me, a quiet practice that I kept to myself. To the extent that I could, I kept it secret from my fellow prisoners and the prison guards.

After eight years of incarceration, I felt a real fear of calling myself a Buddhist and of being seen by my fellow prisoners in a lotus position, praying or meditating. I was especially afraid of being seen receiving an empowerment. While my heart cherished this opportunity, other voices inside me questioned the ceremony. Could this be just a phase that I was going through? Would I later betray myself and the sacredness of this empowerment? Was I a Buddhist? Would I take vows that would eventually call upon me to sacrifice my life? How would I resist all the violence of the prison?

In prison, no one believes that conversion to religion is real. Most prisoners think that anyone who catches a sudden belief in a religion is playing a game or conning their way out of the system.

I had spent almost a year overcoming these doubts, one by one, through my practice and through the teachings of Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, the Lama from whom I would receive my empowerment. Yet somehow they had all reappeared on the morning of the ceremony. Sitting on the floor of my cell trying to meditate, I was scared. The prison echoed the voices of hundreds of prisoners, cursing and arguing all at once.

I just sat still, repeating the prayer of the Red Tara. “Illustrious Tara, please be aware of me, remove my obstacles and quickly grant my excellent aspirations.” With each repetition I would search within my Tara prayer for the divine strength to dispel all my worries, to prepare me to openly accept my empowerment, to help me embrace this day of my first proclamation of Buddhism. But despite this prayer, I wanted to keep my practice secret, so it would remain pure in my heart when I sat in meditation. I wanted to protect the most tranquil hour of my prison life.

I had only met the Rinpoche once before. I had been deeply touched by that first unexpected visit of his to San Quentin to see me. The rules of the prison allowed us to speak only by phone in a small visiting booth, through a glass window. During the visit, I had felt the warmth in the Rinpoche’s heart just by looking at him, and a trust in the Rinpoche’s words. I hoped that through his showing me how to practice in prison, I would one day be able to openly receive my empowerment.

Now I felt fortunate to be sitting on the floor of my cell awaiting this opportunity. I remembered what someone had said to me long ago: “All you need is a pure heart. It’s what’s in your heart that counts the most. Quietly listen for it.” This is what I was doing.

It was noon on the day of the ceremony when my name was called out. A guard handcuffed me and escorted me to the visiting building of the prison. I repeated to myself the prayer of Tara as I went, right up to the moment my eyes met the Rinpoche’s, for the second time in my life.

I sat down facing the Rinpoche with a glass window between us. With him was Tsering, another one of his close students, who was there to translate for him. Melody, a friend and a Buddhist herself, was also there to celebrate this experience with me. We greeted each other warmly and joyfully as other prisoners’ visitors looked on.

I picked up the phone. Tsering already held the phone on their side of the booth. With a bright loving smile on her face, she asked how I was doing. I smiled back and assured all of them that I was doing fine. We were all smiling. Tsering then turned to Lama Rinpoche to receive his words.

She looked back at me. “The Rinpoche is asking if your mind is clear.”

“Yes,” I replied.

* * * * * * * *

Excerpts from the Empowerment Ceremony as transcribed by Melody Ermachild

Rinpoche: It doesn’t matter we can’t touch. The power of the ceremony is in your hearing the words. I ask you to look at things in a very broad way. Don’t blame others for your difficulties. . . You’ll notice that an angry prisoner is really sad because he is making bad karma. All of that is behind you now. From right now, go forward. Before all beings make a promise: I won’t be angry, I won’t hurt anyone with my actions. That’s my priority every day, even if it costs my life. If you keep this promise you don’t create any more future unhappiness for yourself. In your own words compose your promise and say it three times, before God, Angels, Buddhism, and everyone. This provides for your safety. Like if you don’t drink poison you don’t get a bellyache. . .

Jarvis: From this day forward I will not hurt or harm other people even if it costs my life.

Rinpoche: The second vow: From this day forward I will try to end the suffering of all human beings and other beings. . . We relate to our bodies since babyhood as solid. This is part of our karma, but not the whole truth. The empowerment changes our minds about our bodies. Now it is alive—now it is dead and gone. There is space in between the molecules. That’s the body too. Vast openness, vast emptiness. There is continuity between the body and dream; the body and death and rebirth. Underneath there is sameness. Emptiness is the basis for everything—in it is wisdom, which doesn’t get born and die but is forever true. Like the sky. . .We label words good or bad, but it’s all just wind on our vocal chords. The sound of the sky is the sound of emptiness. All sound is an expression of emptiness and so is your body. All are one—a ray of sunlight is part of the fun.

Photo: Grosso

If it’s hard to understand, think about dreaming. This life is only a dream. . . Everything is in how I think of it. For example, a prison—you can think it’s bad, but a person who lives in a beautiful house kills himself. Everyone sits somewhere, whether beautiful or miserable. . . Hell is not elsewhere. Hell is one’s own nightmare—hell is the result of hatred within one. There are two ways to change the mind. One is to think, think, think. One is to let go of thinking and just settle. The essence of all lives on earth is the same. They all taste the same. The concepts of the mind are what give us the idea that some lives are miserable and others are wonderful. Like movies, which are really only light on cellophane. Realize all this is really the movie of your mind. Try to understand that the nature of our body is deathless and your nature is true, faultless, and pure. The essence of mind is open, present. Thoughts are just firings of your brain. Like this window glass—if you look at it you won’t see anything. If you look at thoughts you won’t see perfection.

Jarvis: Helping others could cost me my life today or tomorrow in here. Can I qualify my vow by common sense? Can I use my intelligence not to cause my own death?

Rinpoche: If you help one person today and it costs your life, that’s only one person. But if you train your mind to help the best way, you’ll help many—100, 1000, countless people. There are three ways to be: harmless, helpful, pure. Eventually you will understand your own pure nature. Before you understand it you will feel heaven and hell. It’s like being surrounded by 100 mirrors—if we are dirty and ugly we will see others that way; if we are beautiful others will be also. It’s all a function of mind. The way to practice is to see everyone as pure whether they hurt or help you—even animals, the guards, see their perfection. Hear every sound as perfection, as Tara talking. Everyone who is born will die. . . Every moment is a chance to be harmless, pure, and helpful. Tara: you are her, completely perfect. . .

At the end of every day confess your bad thoughts and actions and recommit yourself. Every time you do something good, instantly give it all away. Every mistake—confess it, let it go. It’s like swimming, just keep going.

Jarvis: I feel pure when I am with you, but it’s easy to forget.

Rinpoche: Ask for support from Tara. . . From Tara come blessings. From her body, liquid and light pour into you. She is with you, right over your head. She washes you, cleanses you, fills you with bliss. . .

Jarvis: [asks about a monk he saw on television who immolated himself because of the Gulf War.] What does it mean?

Rinpoche: He was showing his love, to stop war. For him it was good. For you it might not be—you might not be ready. His body to him is like a suit of clothes. We are not all like that.

Today as you’ve made these promises, you’ve become like family to us. We’ll help you. You’re in our prayers always. We’ll always think of you.

Jarvis: I really feel that. Thank you, Rinpoche.

* * * * * * *

Our visit lasted close to two hours. After the ceremony ended, it became very difficult to hear on my side of the phone. There was a tremendous amount of conversation going on around me. All those other inmates speaking through a chain of phones to their visitors made me struggle to hear the voice of my own visitor. “Wow,” I wondered, “was it this loud during all those minutes of my empowerment?” It felt as though I had just taken ear plugs out of my ears—as though I had just re-entered the door of prison reality again.

At the end of my visit, I spoke to Melody, who had been sitting close to the window all during the empowerment ceremony. I thanked her for being there and asked her to thank the Rinpoche and Tsering later for all the blessing they had brought to me. I told her that I had already done this, but had stopped short of speaking fully because I felt tears of gratitude in my eyes, and didn’t want to be seen crying. Melody understood and said she would. She hung up the phone and departed, waving goodbye with the Rinpoche and Tsering. I waved back.

As I waited for my escort to take me back to my housing unit, an inmate called over to me and asked if I was a practicing Buddhist. I paused. Just as I began to answer, a prison guard came and stood between the inmate and me to listen in. When I looked at this guard, his eyes wandered away. “Sure I am,” I said to the prisoner. “Aren’t we all, in some way or another? Life,” I said, as I looked at the guard, “Life, I think, may just put a piece of Buddha in us all.”

The guard turned to me with a surprisingly nice smile, and then walked off. I was amazed! I turned to the window where the Rinpoche’s chair still was, and felt a powerful sense that he was still there. I bowed three bows to the empty chair.

Photo: Grosso

Finding Freedom—”Sanctuary”

When I first entered the gates of San Quentin in the winter of 1981, I walked across the upper yard holding a box called a “fish-kit” filled with my prison-issued belongings. I saw the faces of hundreds who had already made the prison their home. I watched them stare at me with piercing eyes, their faces rugged and their beards of different shades—all dressed in prison blue jeans and worn, torn coats—some leaning against the chain fences, cigarettes hanging from their lips, others with dark glasses covering their eyes.

I will never forget when the steel cell door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the darkness trying to fix my eyes and readjust the thoughts that were telling me that this was not home—that this tiny space would not, could not be where I would spend more than a decade of my life. My mind kept saying, “No! Hell no!” I thought again of the many prisoners I had seen moments ago standing on the yard, so old and accustomed to their fates. I dropped my fish-kit. I spread my arms and found that the palms of my hands touched the walls with ease. I pushed against them with all my might, until I realized how silly it was to think that these thick concrete walls would somehow budge. I groped for the light switch. It was on the back wall, only a few feet above the steel-plated bunk bed. The bed was bolted into the wall like a shelf. It was only two and a half feet wide by six feet long, and only several feet above the gray concrete floor.

My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by the time I turned the lights on. But until now I hadn’t seen the swarms of cockroaches clustered about, especially around the combined toilet and sink on the back wall. When the light came on, the roaches scattered, dashing into tiny holes and cracks behind the sink and in the walls, leaving only the very fat and young ones still running scared. I was beyond shock to see so many of these nasty creatures. And although they didn’t come near me, I began to feel roaches climbing all over my body. I even imagined them mounting an attack on me when I was asleep.

This was home. For hours I couldn’t bear the thought. The roaches, the filth plastered on the walls, the dirt balls collecting on the floor, and the awful smell of urine left in the toilet for God knows how long sickened me nearly to the point of passing out. To find home in San Quentin I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. My first step was to flush the toilet. To my surprise I found all I needed to clean my cell in the fish-kit-a towel, face cloth, and a box of state detergent. There were also a bar of state soap, a toothbrush and comb, a small can of powdered toothpaste, a small plastic cup, and two 20-year-old National Geographic magazines, one of them from the month and year of my birth.

It seemed that time was now on my side. I started cleaning vigorously. I began with one wall, then went on to the next, scrubbing them from top to bottom as hard as I could to remove the markings and filth. I didn’t stop until I had washed them down to the floor and they were spotless. If I had to sleep in here, this was the least I could do. The cell bars, sink and toilet, and floor got the same treatment. I was especially worried about the toilet. I had heard that prisoners were compelled to wash their faces in their toilets whenever tear gas was shot into the units to break up mass disruptions and the water was turned off. I imagined leaning into this toilet, and I cleaned it to the highest military standards.

I spent hours, sometimes on my hands and knees, washing down every inch of my cell—even the ceiling. When I had finished, I was convinced that I could eat a piece of candy that had dropped onto the floor. The roaches had all drowned or been killed. I blocked off all their hiding places by plugging up the holes and cracks in the walls with wet toilet paper.

After the first days had passed, I decided to decorate my walls with photographs from the National Geographic magazines. The landscapes of Malaysia and other parts of the world had enormous beauty, and I gladly pasted photos of them everywhere. These small representations of life helped me to imagine the world beyond prison walls.

Over the years, I collected books and even acquired a television and radio—windows to the outside world. And I pasted many thousands of photographs on the wall. The one that has made my prison home most like a sanctuary to me is a small photograph of a Buddhist saint that a very dear friend sent to me. It has been in the center of my wall for a number of years.

I now begin every day with the practice of meditation, seated on the cold morning floor, cushioned only by my neatly folded blanket. Welcoming the morning light, I realize, like seeing through clouds, that home is wherever the heart can be found.

How to Help Free Jarvis

  • >>Learn more about Jarvis’s case at www.freejarvis.org.
  • >>Tell your friends, your fellow workers, members of your spiritual community about Jarvis Masters, his writings and his legal case.
  • >>Buy and read copies of Jarvis’s books and give them to your friends.
  • >>Donate copies of Jarvis’s books to churches, adolescent treatment centers and juvenile detention facilities in your area.
  • >>Please keep Jarvis Jay Masters present in your thoughts and your daily practice. Prayers and good wishes are helpful. May we extend our thoughts of freedom from suffering to all beings.


Ed: Lynn H.

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