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to Finding Freedom: Writing From Death Row by Jarvis Jay Masters

by Melody Ermanchild Chavis

  As one of the defense investigators who prepared Jarvis's trial, I looked into the details of his life and learned how far he has traveled spiritually in one short lifetime. Jarvis was born in 1962, the same year my oldest child was born. I met Jarvis's mother, Cynthia, while working on his case, but she died of heart failure just before his trial. She had not seen him for many years. All of Cynthia's children were raised in foster care, because she was addicted to drugs. Jarvis's father had left the family, and later, he too became an addict. In a series of foster care placements, Jarvis was separated from his sisters and brother. For several years, he stayed in his favorite home, with an elderly couple he loved, but when they became too old to care for him, he was moved again, at the age of 9. After that, Jarvis ran away from several foster homes, and went back to the elderly people's house. He was then sent to the county's large locked facility for dependent children, and later to some more group homes. Once, he stayed with an aunt for a while, but he got in trouble. At 12, he became a ward of the court because of delinquency, and was in and out of institutions after that.

During my investigation I met people who had known Jarvis in foster care and institutions, and they told me he had always had a lot of potential. They remembered a smart and articulate youngster with a sense of humor. But too many times he was pushed--and he went--in the wrong direction.

At the age of 17, when he was a very angry young man, he was released from the California Youth Authority and went on a crime spree, holding up stores and restaurants until he was captured and sent to San Quentin. He never shot anyone, but the big stack of reports that I read about his crimes was scary. As I told him, I'm glad I wasn't in Taco Bell when he came through.

When Jarvis arrived in San Quentin in 1981 he was 19. Right away he 2 got involved in what the prison system calls a gang. Most young men coming into prison--black, brown, and white--group together for a sense of belonging, for family. African Americans in those days passed on political education from older men to younger inmates.

In 1985, an officer named Sergeant Burchfield was murdered in San Quentin, stabbed to death at night on the second tier of a cell block. At the time, Jarvis was locked in his cell on the fourth tier.

Although many inmates were suspected of conspiring to murder Sergeant Burchfield, only three were tried, Jarvis among them. One was accused of being the "spear man"--of actually stabbing the Sergeant. Another, an older man, was accused of ordering the killing. Jarvis was accused of sharpening a piece of metal which was allegedly passed along and later used to make the spear with which the sergeant was stabbed.

In one of the longest trials in California history, all three were convicted of their parts in the conspiracy to kill Sergeant Burchfield. But their sentences varied. One jury gave the young spear man the death penalty, but the trial judge changed his sentence to life without parole because of his youth. Another jury could not reach a verdict on the older man's sentence, and so he was also given life without parole. Jarvis was sentenced by that same jury to death in the gas chamber, partly because of his violent background.

Although his lawyers asked the trial judge for leniency, also on the basis of his youth--he was 23 when the crime occurred, just two years older than the accused spear man--she denied this appeal and sent him to death row. He has been there since 1990. There he must be patient, waiting for apppeals to be filed, waiting for the outcomes.

Jarvis's situation is unique in one way: He is the only man on death row 3 living in his crime scene. It's as if he'd been convicted of killing a store clerk in a robbery, and his cell had been set up in that same store, so that for the rest of his life, his every move was watched and he was even fed by people who identified with his victim, people who thought every day about the dead clerk's wife and children. And some day, several of the workers at that store may participate in executing Jarvis. Jarvis has more opportunity than most people on this earth to face up to how people feel about him.

Jarvis is usually stoic about his situation. He talks about karma, and the path he himself took, the choices he made. He often asks me to tell the "at-risk" youths I volunteer with, "You guys still have choicest"

The hardest thing is that he has so few: he doesn't live on ordinary death row. Because the crime he is convicted of involved a guard, he lives in San Quentin's security housing unit called the Adjustment Center. Men on the more relaxed part of death row can make phone calls, listen to tapes, use typewriters. Those in the security housing can have only a few books and a TV. They stay in their cells for all but a few hours of yard time three times each week. Jarvis cannot choose what or when to eat, when to exercise or shower. He can't turn the tier lights off or on, regulate the temperature in his cell, or have any control over when he receives visits or how long they last. I think it must be almost impossible to grow into a mature, responsible man when one is infantilized this way, and yet I have seen Jarvis grow.

Jarvis is very different today from the troubled defensive young man I met in 1986. He even looks different. When I met him, his face had a sullen, callous expression. But, as happens so often to patients with fatal or life-threatening ilnesses, facing his death has opened him up. Having arrived at San Quentin with minimal reading and writing skills, he began to educate himself and to meditate. As I write, he is a mature 35-year-old man, and he plays a constructive role on death row, helping younger men.

Not all officers hold a grudge against Jarvis. Quite a few have told me they respect the changes he has made in himself. I can tell from the relaxed bodies of the officers who know him that they do not fear him. In contrast to how they handle some other clients of mine, many greet Jarvis, smile at him, touch his shoulder. When I arrive for a visit, typically several officers I run into on my way in tell me to say hi to him.

Sergeant Burchfield was killed in June, and if Jarvis is going to have trouble with staff in the prison, it sometimes comes in the month of June. A few times during this month, Jarvis has been placed in the worst part of the prison--on the bottom tier of the security housing. The authorities who make this decision explain it as a "convenience." This move is usually stressful at first, because Jarvis's belongings--including his personal books and legal papers--are all taken from him, although they are later returned.

On that bottom tier of the security housing is a row of cells where the most problematic prisoners are kept. They are moved there on the basis of their behavior. There, Jarvis's neighbors yell all day and all night, and some have hallucinations in which insects are crawling on their bodies, or other people are in their cells. Some do not clean themselves or refuse to eat for fear of being poisoned. If inmates in this condition don't improve, they are eventually sent to hospital prisons and officially designated mentally ill. But in the meantime, they can be segregated, as they are in the security housing.

During those hard months Jarvis spends on the bottom tier, it is particularly difficult for me to watch him get ready to go back to his cell after our visits, which are among the few pleasant times he has. Ordinarily, Jarvis smiles and says goodbye, holding his hands behind him, close to the portal in the metal door so that the officer can reach through and ratchet cuffs onto his wrists. But when he's living on this tier, when the time is up, he doesn't smile. I don't know what else to do, except stand patiently an extra second holding my papers, waiting for him to go.

During those months I worry more about him than I usually do afraid he will get sick or depressed there. But he keeps up his spirits amazingly well. He says that in a way his new neighbors are easy to live with, because no matter what they do, he can't really get mad at them.

Now Jarvis is living back upstairs in a warmer, drier cell. The men on either side are very quiet, giving him the best meditating and writing conditions he has had at San Quentin. Across from his cell is a window. Jarvis is glad the glass is broken because although the air is cold sometimes, it's fresh. Best of all, through the window Jarvis can see some far-off houses. Several children play outside, riding tricycles and throwing balls. Jarvis has given the children names, and he's gotten to know them individually by watching them for hours as they play. At Christmastime, he can see the homes decorated with colored lights, the first he's seen for many years.

Jarvis has been in prison so long, he loves to hear the details of ordinary life. (I tease him that he probably went to jail before airplanes were invented. It's true he's never flown in one.) So I describe the pungent, crowded atmosphere of a favorite cafe, the students with their "lap tops," the smell of espresso, the stacks of free weekly papers.

Jarvis wants to know all about a family dinner or a hike, how it looked, felt, tasted, all the flavor of life that's missing inside. When I tell such stories, we're not exactly living in the moment. In fact, we're not present in San Quentin at all. He is leaning back, smiling, imagining himself with my family or friends. I am reliving some recent event in my own life, seeing it all again. From Jarvis's perspective my life is so rich, so complex, the world so beautiful.

I usually write with Jarvis, not about him. When we write together at the prison, we take a break from discussing the appeal of his case. I take off my watch and put it where he can see it on the ledge between us and one of us says, "All right, ten minutes, OK? Go!" The idea of this exercise is to loosen up our writer's muscles without worrying about results. We just write, sometimes about a particular topic, such as, "A conversation overheard," or "Rain." Sometimes we write whatever comes, just keeping our pens moving. He on his side of the thick wire mesh, and I on my side, the side with the door to the outside world--we both of us put our heads down and scribble away. We are breathing the same stale prison air. We can both hear the murmur of other visits through the walls, and occasionally a guard's voice calling out. Jarvis has more light--the visitor's side of the visiting booth is dim and the prisoner's side is brightly lit with a fluorescent tube.

I have an ordinary ball-point pen, but he has only the innards of one; he's not allowed to have the hard plastic case, so he writes with the flimsy plastic tube of ink. We are both equally intent on getting words onto paper.

When our writing time is over, Jarvis and I read the results to each other. These brief shared writing exercises encourage both of us to keep on writing, and sometimes together we produce seeds that later grow into Jarvis's stories and my essays.

His writing and his meditation practice are what make life worth living for Jarvis. Studying Buddhism these last few years has helped him to gain remarkable insight. Neither he nor I have any illusions about the fact that he has harmed others. But he has taken the precepts of dedicating his remaining life to compassion and nonviolence--not an easy path in a violent prison.

Because his appeals are pending, Jarvis cannot write about his case. The appeals will go to both the state and federal courts, and he will not be close to execution for a couple more years at least.

Jarvis hopes, as he has written, that "those who want to try and make sense of it all will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least make me a human being--someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know for himself who he was."

  Melody Ermachild Chavis. May 1997

Foreword to Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row by Jarvis Masters