Easy Chair — From the March 2016 issue

Bird in a Cage

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There are two things I think about nearly every time I row out into San Francisco Bay. One is a passage from Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain, in which he talks about a swim he once took. A decent swimmer in his own estimate, Vedantam went out into the sea one day and discovered that he had become superb and powerful; he was instantly proud of his new abilities. Far from shore, he realized he had been riding a current and was going to have to fight it all the way back to shore. “Unconscious bias influences our lives in exactly the same manner as that undercurrent,” Vedantam writes. “Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”

Most mornings I row out against the current, and the moment when I turn around is exhilarating. Strokes that felt choppy and ineffectual are suddenly graceful and powerful. I feel very good at what I do, even though I know that the tide is going my way.

Rowing is the closest I will ever come to flying. On calm, flat days my battered old oars make twin circles of ripples that spread out until they intersect behind the stern of the boat. I’m forever retreating from that gentle disturbance, the water smoothing itself into glass again as I go. On the calmest days, when the bay is a mirror, these oars pull me and my scull through reflected clouds in long glides, the two nine-foot oars moving together like wings in that untrammeled space.

The birds are one of the great joys, the terns and pelicans and gulls, the coots and stilts and cormorants, who dive and fly and float, living in the air and the water and the plane between them. The freedom of rowing is enlarged by the freedom of the birds. I set out from the estuary of Corte Madera Creek as it pours into San Francisco Bay. En route I pass Point San Quentin, and San Quentin Prison.

When I row past the prison I think about currents and I think about Jarvis Jay Masters, who’s been on my mind for a long time. We were born eight months apart and are both children of coastal California. We’re both storytellers. But he has been in San Quentin since he was nineteen, more than a third of a century ago, and has swum against the current all his life. For the past twenty-five years, he’s been on death row, though the evidence is on the side of his innocence.

Until he turned twenty-three, Masters’s story could have been that of any number of poor inner-city boys: his father missing in action; his mother drawn into the vortex of heroin; his early neglect; and a ride through the best and worst of the foster-care system, which dropped him straight into the juvenile-prison system. At nineteen, he was sent to San Quentin for armed robbery. Four years later, on June 8, 1985, Howell Burchfield, a prison guard and father of five, was murdered. Two members of a black prison gang were convicted of planning and carrying out the crime. They were given life sentences. Masters was accused of conspiring in the murder and of sharpening the weapon that was used to stab Burchfield in the heart. He received the death penalty.

In books and movies, resourceful lawyers or investigators find a subtle detail, possibly two, to undermine an otherwise credible case. But in Masters’s case there aren’t merely one or two weak links. So far as I can tell, the whole chain is rotten.

Major witnesses changed their testimony, and several of the prisoners who testified against Masters recanted. Some testified that they had been offered incentives to incriminate him. One star witness was so unreliable and so widely used as an informant that dozens of cases in the state had to be thrown out because of his involvement. He has recanted his testimony about Masters. The man convicted of carrying out the murder said in 2004 that Masters was innocent and that all three men on trial were “under orders from [gang] commanders that, under threat of death, none of us could discuss the [gang] in any way.” Meaning that Masters faced two death penalties, and one set him up for the other.

I first read about Masters in Altars in the Street, a 1997 book by Melody Ermachild Chavis, who was the defense investigator for his murder trial. They have remained close for thirty years. Chavis and I later became friends ourselves. “It was obvious working on it even way back then, between 1985 and 1990, that they had a lot of suspects and a lot of theories,” she told me earlier this year. “The big mistake they made was: they destroyed the crime scene. They bagged it all up and threw it in the Marin County dump.”

She described the way prisoners and prison officials got rid of hundreds of notes that had been exchanged between prisoners, as well as a large collection of prison-made knives, which had been thrown out of the cells when the prisoners realized that they were going to be searched. According to one account in Masters’s mountain of legal documents, guards collected two different potential murder weapons, which they say they put into envelopes as evidence. Both disappeared before the trial.

Masters was a gang member at the time of the killing, but the gang’s leaders eventually gave many reasons why it was impossible that he had sharpened the missing weapon. One was that he had voted against killing Burchfield, an act of insubordination for which he had been stripped of responsibilities. Another was geography; he was on the fourth tier of a cell block, and the murder took place on the second tier. Moving a weapon back and forth would have been difficult and dangerous, and a witness testified that the weapon never left the second tier. Most critically, someone else admitted to making it.

Masters’s attorneys filed the opening brief of his appeal in 2001, after which his case progressed slowly. It was not until November of last year that the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the appeal. Even by the standards of California’s glacial appeals process, this is an unusually long time.

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.”

When I started rowing, I thought it would be a meditation practice of sorts, because so much concentration goes into the single gesture that moves you across the water. That repetitive movement requires the orchestration of the whole body, and it contains a host of subtleties in timing and positioning and force. You could spend a lifetime learning to do it right, but even as you’re learning you can go miles across the water. Gradually the gestures became second nature, and I could think about other things.

Though I don’t get lost in thought much. It’s too beautiful.

I want to keep rowing, to keep relishing that freedom on the open water under the changing weather, going with and against the tides, but I don’t need so much freedom that I can’t go inside a prison on occasion. Buddhism calls for the liberation of all beings, and it’s a useful set of tools for thinking about prisons and what we do with our freedoms.

We are all rowing past one another, and it behooves us to know how the tides move and who’s being floated along and who’s being dragged down and who might not even be allowed in the water. I bought Masters some things from the vending machines just outside the cages, which I could access and he couldn’t. He asked whether I was going to eat, and I said maybe I’d get a taco after. He said, “That’s freedom.” He was right. Freedom to eat tacos on my own schedule, to pursue the maximum freedom of rowing, to enter the labyrinth of San Quentin and leave a couple of hours later, to listen to stories and to tell them, to try to figure out which stories might free us.

It was stories, written down by Melody Ermachild Chavis; by Alan Senauke, a Zen priest; and by Jarvis Masters himself that made me care about him and think about him and talk to him and visit him. And it was these stories that made me hope to see him leave that cage on his own wings. Meanwhile, there is a way Jarvis is already free; as a storyteller he’s escaped the narratives about himself he’s been given and he’s made his own version of what a life means.

“Whatever the outcome, I want to be in a position to deal with that,” he told me. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘Jarvis, you gonna win this case.’ It’s the same way the other way,” meaning people who say he won’t win. “I’m scared both ways; I’m scared to think this way and scared that way. Do I lose sleep? Of course I lose sleep. I do have some faith in this system, I just have to. The possibility of them coming to the right decision is there. I do have faith in the outcome of this system. History doesn’t give you a lot of good reasons for it. That’s just my bottom line.”

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