Jarvis Masters is an African-American writer who lives in San Quentin Prison’s Adjustment Center, on Death Row. He has been a student of Buddhism for three years and was given Buddhist Precepts by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche in March, 1991. He is a frequent contributor to Turning Wheel and has been published in Men’s Studies Review, Recovering, Men’s Council Newsletter, Wingspan and other publications. He received a 1992 PEN Center Writing Award or Prisoners for his poem Recipe for Prison Pruno, which tied for third place.
After enjoying his wonderful writing in Turning Wheel, Inquiring Mind invited Masters to contribute to our exploration of moral dilemmas. As a prisoner on Death Row, he has a unique perspective from which to explore morality, particularly in matters of life and death. In one of his articles, Masters describes his “empowerment ceremony” with Chagdud Rinpoche in the San Quentin maximum security visiting office. By phone, through a glass window, the Rinpoche gives him his second vow, “From this day forward I will try to end suffering of all human beings and other beings.” On hearing this, Masters asks, “In here, helping others could cost me my life. Can I qualify my vow by common sense? Can I use my intelligence not to cause my own death?”
We had only been out on the San Quentin maximum security exercise yard for an hour when I noticed a new prisoner entering the yard gate, looking as though he were a woman. I couldn’t believe it. No San Quentin exercise yard hated homosexuals more than this yard. Gays came in second only to informants to be stabbed and killed. My mind instantly said this was some kind of mistake, or a dirty ploy by the prison administration to get someone killed. Wondering which of these two evils it could be, I peeked up at the tower gunmen. I asked myself what a Buddhist teacher would do at this point.
I’d personally never held anything against homosexuals, but I knew that the prisoners on this particular yard hated them. Some hated them just for hate’s sake. Others hated them out of fear: especially those who had arrived at San Quentin in the early ‘80s with life sentences or those who were waiting on Death Row to die, and had long ago been taken in by the very first media reports of how AIDS was just a homosexual disease. Later, prison officials told us that other diseases like tuberculosis were something else that homosexuals were spreading throughout the prisons. The men on this yard had come to believe all this. They were scared of homosexuals and hated them all.
I stared with disbelief at this gay person waiting at the entrance of the yard gate. I thought, “This guy isn’t going to last one full hour out here!” I didn’t have to turn around to know that there were other prisoners behind me, looking on coldly. Everyone was watching. I could just feel it. There was silence all over the yard. I didn’t have to see all the prison-made shanks being pulled out of waistbands to know what some of the men had begun doing. I wanted so badly to holler out and warn this stupid person who was still standing at the yard gate, “Man, this isn’t your damn yard. Don’t bring your ass out here.” But I couldn’t say this. I could not say anything. It would’ve been considered snitching. And I am not a snitch. So I swallowed and kept my mouth shut, and prayed.
Then came the loud clinking and whining sound of the motorized gate letting this person onto the yard. When the gate slammed shut, my heart dropped. He had just become another walking dead man. I had seen a few others like this in my eleven years of incarceration.
The entire yard, from everyone on the basketball and handball courts to the scattered groups of others over by the pull-up bar, all watched in total silence as this fragile-looking man with tiny breasts, his hair in a pony tail, vaseline on his lips, dressed in really tight state jeans, began swishing along the yard fence.
My blood pressure boiled with anger and frustration at the prison administration’s negligence for letting something like this happen. It made absolutely no sense to put a “he-she,” who looked more like a woman than a man, out here on this high security exercise yard. “This is totally insane,” I thought, trying to not show any facial anger.
According to the laws of prison life, none of this was supposed to be any business of mine. But secretly, it was. This time it had to be. For all the life in me, I wasn’t able to look at this gay person, who was now sitting alone, against the back wall of the exercise yard, and not see an innocent human being there. Yet I did not want to have to summon up the courage to become a snitch and risk my own life for his to warn him off this yard. Why me, anyway? I felt crossed up.
I looked up again at the gunmen, hovering over the exercise yard and saw they had already gotten in position. They both had their semi-automatic rifles hanging over the gun rail, readying themselves to fire down on the north wall of the exercise yard. Obviously, they already knew what everybody else knew.
I had to do something. Not later, but now. I began walking alongside the wall of the exercise yard. What could I possibly do? Violence was just waiting to happen. Dammit. I asked myself why are things like this happening even more since I took my vows? What would all the thousands of people outside these walls who call themselves Buddhists tell me to do? Would they say, “Let’s all be Buddhists and everybody just put their knives up and smile?”
I made my way around to where the homosexual was sitting against the wall. Not stopping, I passed him several times, wanting to give myself a really good look at him. I wanted to find out if he was aware of what was going on, that someone was about to stab and kill him. The fool was not! He sat there like a tiny fish in a shark tank. Now I needed to get away from this guy, quick. I needed to think, because I felt time was running out—even for me.
I spotted Crazy Dan on the opposite side of the exercise yard. He was squatting down, and secretly cuffing a long prison-made shank in the sleeve of his coat. “Damn!” I mumbled, “No! Not Crazy Dan.” My heart began to pound as I watched Dan, a really good friend of mine, preparing himself to kill this innocent person, whose only offense was that he was gay.
Dan and I had known each other for more than eight years in San Quentin, and it just figured that this good friend of mine wasn’t feeling as I was about all this. I didn’t want Dan to risk his own life, trying to take the life of another with these two ready gunmen watching.
Then, my mind went blank. Without thinking, I began walking down the wall, on the opposite side of the yard from Dan. It wasn’t until we both suddenly turned the corners, coming towards each other, with the lone gay man, squatting quietly against the back wall, that I saw the long shank slowly sliding down from Dan’s coat sleeve, into his right hand. I quickened my pace to get there before Crazy Dan did. I didn’t have time to be scared, or even to think. I knew I had to get there first.
Quickly, I knelt down in front of the gay man and asked if he had a spare cigarette. Dan was only six feet away. I glanced up and saw Dan stopped dead, standing there with his right hand hiding behind his leg, gripping the long shank. Dan was stunned. I could see all the adrenaline in his body freeze, as his eyes like those of a ferocious beast stared into mine. I’d never seen those eyes before. They were not those of the Dan I knew. For that split second I thought my friend was going to kill me instead.
Then something happened. Dan’s eyes blinked hard several times, as he suddenly began to realize my silent plea. I could see that he was remembering the time when I had once stood by him when he, too, had been marked for death. Dan turned and calmly walked away.
“Hey, Daddy, did you want this cigarette, or what?” the homosexual asked in a female voice, holding one out between his fingers. “No, I don’t smoke.” He looked around confused.
When I realized what I had just done, I almost choked on my fear. Why had I put my life on the line for somebody that I didn’t know, or hadn’t even seen before? “Am I crazy or just plain stupid?” I wondered, looking in the face of this gay man who was still totally unaware of what I had just done.
I stood up and walked away, knowing that I was going to take a lot of heat later that day from everyone on the exercise yard. But I realized that I could make the case to the whole yard that all this had been one big setup. I would say that the prison authorities had been intent on shooting and killing some of us and that I wasn’t about to let anybody that I knew, especially Crazy Dan, get killed by tiptoeing into their trap. The truth that I would purposely leave out, in justifying what I did that day, was that I honestly cared about the homosexual person too. He meant absolutely nothing to me—except that he was just as human as all of us. He never came back to our yard after that day, but he left me with a lot of questions.
Is what I did a Buddhist deed? Can’t it just be a human deed? Can’t everybody or anybody do this? Am I alone? Am I the only Buddhist out here? Does this mean I have to do this all the time? Am I, the Lone Buddhist Ranger, expected to be here to stop all this stuff? I imagine myself raising my hand and yelling “Stop! A Buddhist is here!”
I’m not going to stop it all. It hasn’t stopped at all. There are stabbings every day in this place. All I have is my practice. Every morning and night I fold my two bunk blankets and sit on them on the floor of my cell.