on June 13, 2003
Masters' tales are a must-read pass to San Quentin when it was a Level IV (of four criminal/felony levels) prison and the inmates ran the blocks. His book is a word album of people and incidents on the yards, on the tiers and in the cells as races and cultures collide in a setting of despair and boredom. In one of his most powerful chapters, "Sanctuary," Masters enters the upper yard on his first day, facing down the stairs of the established cons as they inspect the "fish"; then the door slams on his 5x9' cell that will be his home for the rest of his life.
The recidivists, the young parole violators who cycle through San Quentin on 90 day plus terms, generally for drug use, with little hope for treatment, jobs or housing on the outside, are the antagonists in many of his stories. And this brings us to the present. The California prison system and San Quentin are still largely populated by young parole violators, incarcerated for drug convictions or dry outs. These youngsters, unaware, ignorant or plainly apathetic about informal prison rules, seek to achieve the "OG" (Old Gangster) status of long time inmates through predatory violence. Masters writes of his frustrating attempts to cope with them at a time that Level IV inmates all mingled together. San Quentin is now a Level II prison, confining a gentler, generally nonviolent person within its massive perimeter, and Masters now is a practicing Buddhist, a transformation remarkably documented in the book's timeline
"Three Strikes" laws and the huge campaign contributions of the CCPOA, the California prison guards' union, have lead to unparalleled growth in California's prison population with Lifers (2nd degree murder or kidnapping crimes) eligible for parole and violators routinely jammed together in every facility. California's Level IV violent cons are housed in Pelican Bay and other specially designated Security Housing Units (SHU), yet Masters' Death Row for men remains at San Quentin. And the timelessness of Masters' stories is reflected by the fact that Lifers still have the respect of almost all groups in the prison, while California Governor Gray Davis fosters despair and hopelessness with an anti-parole stance. This book is an electrifying read if you have never been incarcerated. You can share Masters' gradual transformation from a mind-your-own-business, somewhat antisocial individual, to a compassionate prosocial inmate. Amazing book. I could not put it down. Very highly recommended.
on July 12, 2000
Faith is known as a powerful force to enable one to overcome emotional and psychological barriers that would deny their humanity. Jarvis Masters shares with us his spiritual transformation in a setting that is life denying. His poignant stories gives one insight on the culture of prison life on death row.
Of particular interest is Jarvis himself. He is an incarcerated Black man whose embracing of Vyrayana Buddhism has enabled him to move beyond the violence of prison life. Usually American Buddhism is associated with a white intellectual elite group which appears to ignore the sufferings of those incarcerated. Islam has been known as the religion of choice for jailed Black men while Christianity has provided religious solace and comfort to those imprisoned.
Buddha's visit to death row and Jarvis offers a new view of Buddhism. It has broken through its chains of exclusivisity and has offered those who are incarcerated the hope of finding freedom in the worst of circumstances. Jarvis' sharing of his practice of Buddhism is a testament to the great power of a faith to make a difference in one's life. This is a book to be read by all people interested in the transformative power of religion in today's prisons.
on November 30, 1997
In Finding Freedom, author and San Quentin death-row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters compiles a heart-wrenching, funny, and sometimes profane series of anecdotal essays which might make for a simple read were it not for the author's spiritual transformation. If you are looking for a treatise for or against capital punishment or the values or demerits of prison reform, this is not the book for you. Instead, Masters portrays his prison life plainly, and without posturing, religious "one-upmanship", or political commentary. Instead, he tells of his own day-to-day existence and that of his fellow prisoners without the judgment most of us would inject were we in his position. Despair and his probable death are interwoven subtly, but seemingly without guile. His chronicle of improbable transformation from criminal to Buddhist practitioner is applicable to anyone struggling to find a spiritual homestead, and makes the book easy to relate to whether or not the reader shares a similar background with the author. Without explicitly making the intention known, he teaches us all that we are prisoners behind walls of our own erection, and that the only way to escape our prison is to look within.
on February 26, 1998
Not your everyday prisoner's memoir! Jarvis Masters' stories from the "belly of the beast" are well-observed, written with a lot of flair, and often hilariously funny. He has spent a third of his life on death row, yet somehow finds the strength and spirit to grow beyond those walls with his mind and heart, through his life and the stories he shares with us. A truly inspiring book -- I bought it for several of my friends, and they are telling me that they have been distributing it around their own circle. This is not a political book nor an anti-death penalty manifesto, yet it makes its case quietly and simply through the personality of the writer. I can't see how anyone could read it and still be convinced that this man (who didn't kill anyone) deserves to be put to death by the State of California.
on July 9, 2000
The author presents his unusual story without self-pity. The language is straightforward and includes quite a bit of prison slang, yet Masters is also a gifted poet and knows how to paint with words. He manages to break into our consciousness like a beam of light, despit the fact that he lives in a place so dark few of us can even imagine what it's like to try and survive there even for an hour, much less for decades. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in justice, anyone interested in engaged Buddhism (or engaged Christianity, for that matter), anyone interested in humanity. I bought several copies as presents for my friends, and they all loved it!
on November 14, 2001
Most of us live in a prison of one kind or another, often of our own making. In a world where the U.S. prison industry has grown faster than any other, and the Constituion that protects our rights is in serious jeopardy, we never know where we are going to end up. Jarvis Jay Masters has pulled together a peaceful philosophy in the midst of one of our most violent subcultures, a philosophy that got him through each day, facing each challenge on the highest level he was able to master. I am impressed with his effort to better himself, and I think we can all benefit from his example. Masters is able to find freedom where there might appear to be none. So can we all.
on July 11, 2002
This book was one that I was not too sure about when I picked it up. I just started skimming the pages. The next time I looked up at the clock, I was half way through with this book. It places you in the midst of one of the country's toughest places where souls are stomped down and spirits are forgotten about. All the while, these human beings are struggling to find their voices. The writing is amazing as Jarvis brings you into his world of sometimes humorous, often ironic and constantly brutal life in San Quentin.
on July 9, 2001
The most powerful benefit that this book had for me was it's ability to inspire me to live my life as it is and be honest about myself to others. There is a deep vulnerability in the writing that allows the reader to connect with the suffering in prison, and life in general for that matter. I am interested in prisons and buddhism, so this book fit the bill very well. This book was written well, just not outstanding. Worth while.
on October 23, 1998
I spent all night reading this book, given to me by a friend who also read it in a single sitting. It is for me another example of the power of the spirit over all things, a reminder to trust in our hearts, and that the greatest lessons also come from struggle. May each of us be as inspired to approach our lives with as much courage, honesty, and love as this young man from behind the walls of death row.
on June 13, 1998
I read this book and was impressed at the ability for Jarvis to totally be here now and accept where he was now and live on...We can all learn from this book about letting the past be the past and letting today be today. We can work for goodness and happiness in any situation and can certainly find freedom thru our work. Point well taken, Jarvis. love, Naomi