Easy Chair — From the March 2016 issue

Bird in a Cage

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Though only 6.5 percent of Californians are black, African Americans make up 29 percent of the state’s incarcerated and 36 percent of those condemned to death. They are more likely than others convicted of similar crimes to receive the death penalty, and assailants of any race who kill a white person are far more likely to be sentenced to death than killers of other victims. There are those who swim with the current and those who swim against it, and then there are those who have firehoses turned on them.

The first time I saw Masters was at a session of a 2011 evidentiary hearing. There, in the small courtroom, stood a tall, gracious man in shackles and an orange jumpsuit. A dozen or so friends and supporters were present, most of them from the Buddhist community. Since his sentencing, Masters had become a devoted Buddhist practitioner. He told me that he meditates daily and tries to incorporate teachings about compassion into his daily life among prisoners and guards. In 1989, he took vows from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, an exiled Tibetan lama and distinguished teacher who died in 2002. (The first vow was “From this day forward I will not hurt or harm other people even if it costs my life.”) Pema Chödrön, a writer and abbess who is perhaps the best-known Buddhist in the West after the Dalai Lama, speaks of Masters with admiration, and she visits him every year.

When we began talking on the phone, a few months ago, Masters told me how much prisoners crave connection with the outside world. Buddhism allowed him to join a community of ethical and idealistic people with practical ideas about how to respond to suffering and rage. It took him outward and inward. “Meditation has become something I cannot do without. I see and hear more clearly, feel more relaxed and calm, and I actually find my experiences slowing down,” he wrote in 1997. “I’m more appreciative of each day as I observe how things constantly change and dissolve. I’ve realized that everything is in a continual process of coming and going. I don’t hold happiness or anger for a long time. It just comes and goes.”

He’s also connected to the outside world through his writing. He’s the author of two books and many magazine essays. He told me that his essays “go out on their own wings and some of them fly back to me.” It’s not the first time he’s used flight as a metaphor for his own reach; the title of his memoir comes from an incident when he stopped another prisoner from nailing a seagull with a basketball in the prison yard. Asked why, he said off the top of his head, “That bird has my wings,” and so the gripping, moving narrative of his early years is titled That Bird Has My Wings.

“You know, it’s really hard to get in,” I told Masters about my attempts to figure out how to move through the prison system. “It was easy for me,” he replied, and we laughed. From the time I first wrote him, it took me approximately two months of bureaucratic wrangling to be able to visit him. Finally, on a cold Sunday in January, I showed up at the visitors’ entrance wearing the permitted clothing and carrying what few articles I was allowed: a key, a state-issued I.D., some coins and bills for the vending machines, and a few pages of fact-checker’s questions and quotes to verify, sealed inside a clear ziplock bag. I passed through something much like airport security, and on the other side, I stepped out to face a shabby jumble of sinister architectural styles. I was suddenly left alone to find my way to the visiting rooms a couple hundred yards away.

There were more doors to go through, operated by a young woman in the guard booth who let me in and took my license and pass. I entered a room in which everything except the vending machines was painted a pale buttery yellow. There were fifteen cages in which prisoners were locked with their visitors, a U-shaped arrangement with guards on the inside (where prisoners entered) and outside (where the visitors entered). Each cage was about four by eight feet, just slightly smaller than the cells the prisoners live in, and was furnished with two plastic chairs and a tiny table.

A guard wearing a heavy belt with keys dangling on steel chains locked me in the cage closest to the door through which the prisoners entered and exited. Masters arrived with his hands cuffed behind him. Once inside the cage he offered them up to the guard to be unlocked, a gesture both had apparently engaged in so many times that it appeared utterly routine. Thus began my first face-to-face meeting with Masters. Soon afterward a stocky white man with gray hair passed by on his way out of the visiting room, and he and Masters shouted something at each other. It was a little unclear whether this was animosity or friendship, but Masters said it was the latter. The two men had known each other since being in foster care together. It was as though they’d been groomed for death row since they were little boys.

Another prisoner passed by and said that his daughter was on break from college and coming to see him. After a brief discussion with the man, Masters told me that he’d become a confidant, someone who, because of his writings and the way he conducted himself, was trusted with things that prisoners might not ordinarily share. He reminded me that he’s been in prison since before some of the younger inmates and guards were born.

“I have been so blessed because I was thinking about all that could have gone wrong, that could’ve affected me,” he told me. “All the things that didn’t go wrong. I have seen a lot of tragedy, and all of those things could’ve been me. I’ve seen the violent heart, and I count my blessings that I haven’t had that kind of hatred. Being on death row, I have a front-row seat on what suffering is. I’m not damaged, not had this place tear me up like I’ve seen a hundred times. I’m probably crazy for not being crazy. I count my blessings every day.”

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