Jarvis Jay Masters is a former foster care youth and long time inmate on Death Row in San Quentin Prison. His story is now getting a lot of attention since Oprah chose his book That Bird Has My Wings for her book club. Rebecca Solnit has also taken up his cause and his Buddhist choice for sustenance has brought him additional attention. It may seem strange with so much attention given to his situation that I am only just now learning about him but I had read a book some months, maybe a year ago, about how unequal our criminal justice system is and how overwhelmingly unfair to black men. And as part of my learning about all things adoption, foster care has also come to my awareness many times.
He was born in 1962 in Long Beach, California. At the age of five, after watching his father almost beat his mother to death, while he tried to keep his sisters safe, he was taken by the system from her. The children were living in filth and hunger when they were finally found. Someone (perhaps the old lady who set out food for them) reported them to the cops, who brought in social services. The sight of how ragged their clothes were then led social services into their house. The situation was so bad they were removed from both the house and their parents.
This is how from the age of five, he was in and out of foster homes and institutions, enduring violence and trauma in a system meant to provide some measure of protection for him. Here is the story of one such memory of the kind of care he was receiving.
One morning when he was nine, while eating breakfast and hating the yolk from the fried eggs he had been fed. As he usually did, he went to dump that into the trash without his foster mother knowing he had done that. Only this time her daughter saw him. At the trash can, he was met by his foster mother’s hand as she hit his face. She had slapped him so hard, his ears rang and he could taste blood bubbling in his mouth. After that, she grabbed his head and stuffed his face down into the garbage, all the while yelling at him to find the eggs and eat them. During this abuse, he passed out.
I will make a long story shorter (you can read much more at the LINK> to the Free Jarvis website) – he ended up at the California Youth Authority, the last stop before adult prison. After his release, he soon found himself sentenced to 20 years in San Quentin Prison at the age of 19. Hooking up with a childhood friend of his uncle’s, he was involved in an armed robbery trying to grab sacks of money being collected by a store employee from the registers. He says, the whole scene was a disaster and in less than a day later, there were warrants out for their arrest, even charging them with crimes in towns he had never even heard of. Even so, he actually felt lucky to have been caught and thereby stopped as his life had spun so far out of control.
Four years after entering prison, a guard was killed and he was one of three charged in that crime. He was innocent as all of the other prisoners were well aware but a jury found him guilty of a conspiracy to murder and he was sentenced to death by lethal injection. That is why he has spent more than 21 years in solitary confinement, which longer than any other prisoner in San Quentin history. A woman judge was assigned to the case, and this brought back memories that he had a woman judge the first time he was taken away from his mother.
When he was a child, he had been made a ward of the state as they told him, they only wanted to protect him but never did. Now, he found himself in the same kind of room, with dim buzzing lights, as the law was deciding how to kill him. He describes that life in San Quentin – “To find home in San Quentin I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. The roaches, the filth plastered on the walls, the dirt balls 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.”
Now his Buddhism and his legal case, thanks to his writings, have made him a bit of a celebrity, perhaps on the verge of finally being acquitted, or at least pardoned, and released into freedom as a changed man with so much to offer others in similar circumstances to the ones his life brought him into. Wisdom gained at a great price.