Book review – Finding Freedom: how death row broke and opened my heart

A book review by Alice Maxwell

Finding Freedom – How Death Row broke and opened my heart by Jarvis Jay Masters

When Jarvis Jay Masters was incarcerated in San Quentin prison at the age of 19 he was illiterate. Fellow prisoners taught him to read and write, whereupon his talent as an author and poet blossomed.

In his book Finding Freedom, Masters describes life in San Quentin, a hellish place full of violence, anger and despair. Yet Masters himself leads a life dedicated to non-violence. He fosters no hatred and uses every minute of his time to pursue a spiritual path dedicated to the service of others. Although his stories are often gritty and tragic, they are told without bitterness, and a gentle humour pervades his writing.

This is all the more remarkable as his personal circumstances are unimaginably horrific. Four years into his prison sentence, in 1985, he was convicted of conspiring to murder a prison officer and was placed in solitary confinement for 21 years. He 1991 he was sentenced to death. He has always maintained he had nothing to do with the murder and his innocence is widely believed, leading to a growing campaign to exonerate him;

Masters finds his inner strength through the practice of Buddhist meditation and philosophy. He is a peacemaker within the prison walls. When prisoners plan an attack on the warders, he manages to divert the crisis by suggesting they flood the cell block instead. He willingly accepts punishment for this, in the happy knowledge that he has prevented the murder of an officer, and execution of fellow inmates involved in the crime.

Masters receives occasional visits from Buddhist teachers who explain the meaning of karma, suffering, and inner peace. He appreciates that if he were not in San Quentin he would be dead, due to the violent gang culture he grew up in. Violence has been the backdrop to most lives in San Quentin and during a baseball game he notices that the players’ bodies are covered in scars, which as he discovers on gentle questioning, reveal a background of terrible abuse.

Inspired by the suffering surrounding him, Masters recites mantras of compassion. He is denied permission to have a rosary, so he stays up all night and painstakingly makes a tiny hole in each of his head-ache pills with a staple, which he threads through a piece of cotton from his jeans. This concentrated work in semi darkness leaves him with terrible head-ache, but he has no more pills – they have all been transformed into a rosary!

He says of himself: I’m not a great meditator, but I realise how important my practice is. Still, I also like watching sports, playing basketball, and looking at cartoons. I adore junk foods and sometimes I love dirty jokes. I’m in love with life.

There is a wonderful photo of Masters on the free Jarvis website in which his self-confidence, serenity and zest for life burst forth.
He is a widely published African American author, and his poem “Recipe for Prison Pruno” won the PEN award in 1992. His writings are studied in schools and colleges.

Jarvis Jay Masters

In the Afterword, Masters leaves the reader with the words “I am blessed to receive thousands of letters from all walks of life that inspire me – from grade schools to colleges, to the sons and daughters of prison guards, to prisoners still in or still out – and all to say “If you can do it in a place like San Quentin, I could here on the outside”.

Masters exhausted his state appeals in 2019, and the decision of whether he lives or dies now lies in the hands of the federal court.

Finding Freedom is published by Shambala Publications, 2020.


Take ten peeled oranges,
Jarvis Masters, it is the judgment and sentence of this court,
One 8 oz bowl of fruit cocktail,
That the charged information was true,
Squeeze the fruit into a small plastic bag,
And the jury having previously, on said date,
And put the juice along with the mash inside,
Found that the penalty shall be death,
Add 16 oz of water and seal the bag tightly.
And this Court having, on August 20, 1991,
Place the bag into your sink,
Denied your motion for a new trial,
And heat it with hot running water for 15 minutes
It is the order of this Court that you suffer death,
Wrap towels around the bag to keep it warm for fermentation.
Said penalty to be inflicted within the walls of San Quentin,
Stash the bag in your cell undisturbed for 48 hours.
At which place you shall be put to death,
When the time has elapsed,
In the manner prescribed by law,
Add 40 to 60 cubes of white sugar,
The date later to be fixed by the Court in warrant of execution.
Six teaspoons of ketchup,
You are remanded to the custody of the warden of San Quentin,
Then heat again for 30 minutes,
To be held by him pending final
Secure the bag as done before,
Determination of your appeal.
Then stash the bag undisturbed again for 72 hours.
It is so ordered.
Reheat daily for 15 minutes.
In witness whereof,
After 72 hours,
I have hereon set my hand as Judge of this Superior Court,
With a spoon, skim off the mash,
And I have caused the seal of this Court to be affixed thereto.
Pour the remaining portion into two 18 oz cups.
May God have mercy on your soul.

From Finding Freedom: How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart by Jarvis Jay Masters © 1997, 2020 by Jarvis Jay Masters. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.