How many of us have wished that prisons could become monasteries, places of regeneration?
This memoir from Death Row proves they can be. When Jarvis Masters makes the choice to transform himself, no prison can confine him; outward conditions lose their power to degrade and terrify the heart. This book of forty short essays touches on all aspects of prison life but finally focuses on the process by which Masters reclaims himself, using Buddhist practice and writing to bring forth his own responsible, resolute, fearless, courageous and loving qualities.
Masters has lived in San Quentin since 1962, when he was 19. His death sentence derives from the 1985 murder of a guard and is awaiting appeal. A few details are given in the preface. Sentenced to death in 1990, he decided to try to understand who he really was when he saw people working on his case, trying to help him stay alive.
We cheer for Masters as he discovers himself to be a person of intelligence and humor who often chooses to be wise, peaceful and loving in the face of inward and outward adversity. His spiritual practice is outrageously inventive; it’s often hilarious to see how Masters flips a situation, using the tricks of an environment he knows better than any other.
It’s fascinating to read a well-written book about prison life—a life that is closed to many of us. The characters are vivid, funny, often terrifying. Masters’s simple and direct style gives the sense that he’s living at the end of the line and doesn’t need to lie to anyone, least of all himself.
The book would seem more fully honest, though, if it included stories about his life “in the life,” in and out of prison, like the ones in Malcolm X’s autobiography. Surely this omission is due, at least in part, to Masters’s pending appeal. Perhaps, too, he was afraid to lose readers’ sympathy or some of his still developing sympathy for himself. He admits generally to having harmed others, and one reminiscence about smashing a young tree serves as a metaphor for his destructive moments. Still, we hope another book can explore this difficult material. Clearly he has a lot to write about.
The power of his practice and expression are such that we who live in what’s relatively understood as freedom must say to ourselves, “If Jarvis Masters can do it, then maybe we can, too.” May he live to write more.