Feb 10, 2019
By Will Shonbrun
The last exit to San Quentin State Prison on Route 580 is an easy right turn just before the Richmond Bridge. San Quentin is the only prison in California that executes condemned men, but there has not been an execution since 2006. However, Death Row is still there and the vibe that echoes through you when you enter that world is still palpable. So let us go then, you and I, to San Quentin.
The person I’m visiting is Jarvis Jay Masters, a most remarkable man, who’s been on Death Row for 38 years, 21 of which were in solitary confinement, longer than any other prisoner in San Quentin history. I know Jarvis to be an innocent man, wrongfully convicted, and we have been friends for 20+ years. More about that later.
A visit to San Quentin is a journey to juxtaposition. The ride along the rocky coast where the prison sits fills the eyes with the ocean’s raw beauty and familiar sounds of the sea against the shore. All is set against the stark background of drab and aging buildings that house desperate souls whose prospects are grim.
In the long and narrow windowless visitor’s admission’s building awaiting entry, children of all ages, mostly black Americans, play and laugh and sometimes get scolded by worried families. As common a scene as we’ve all experienced. As compared with the next step, the tightly confined, caged visit with their inmate relative or friend, the contrast of childhood enthusiasm with the heavy reality of the inmate’s locked-down life offers a stark relief.
Like entering any new place it helps to know the lay of the land, the customs and the rules of the game. Here’s a little primer.
Getting in to see someone on Death Row is by appointment only and requires jumping a bunch of hoops and considerable phone time. It can take hours of busy signals, interminable waits on hold and then getting disconnected. Hours easily turn into days of trying to get through and make an appointment as days and times to call are limited. Once there, getting inside to see family or friends is a strictly regulated procedure and you’d better know the scene or you’re in for some misery.
Unsuspecting newcomers to S.Q., as it’s commonly called, await admission in a long, narrow, windowless building, anywhere from 1 to 3 hours only to be told their clothing is wrong. They can’t be wearing blue, green or brown. That’s the guards and inmates’ colors. They’re then directed to a small building not close by where they’re issued alternative clothes that are redeemed later. No prior warning or notice has been given. The message is clear.
“We have the power,” it says. “You have no say in the matter.” It’s the same with the inmates. They’re issued identical prison blue denim pants, shirts and jackets. Message understood. “You have no identity here. You’re just another blue clad being in the herd.”
Most of the guards I’ve come across are a pretty decent sort, but of course there are jerks, just like everywhere else. Once you get through the outer first station and pass muster with its long list of restrictions and searches for possible contraband, it’s a not unpleasant walk, except in cold, wet weather up to the second station that house the visiting sections. Visits with inmates are either what’s termed “contact visits” – face to face in the same room, metal cage actually – or “non-contact visits,” which are by phone and through a thick Plexiglas separator like in the movies. The sound quality on these phones ranges from very poor to inaudible. Such is the fun of prison visits.
That’s the most I’ve ever seen of the inside of San Quentin and it’s enough. It was built in the 1850s, but I’d say its current buildings were constructed much later. It’s not a dungeon, but it looks and feels institutional to the max and operates on a bureaucratic scaffolding of rules and regulations that cannot, will not, be broken or bent.
So what, you might be thinking, prisons aren’t supposed to be playgrounds. People are incarcerated for a reason and that’s true. But there are also people there, guards and visitors for instance, who’ve not committed any crime, but nevertheless are spending time there. Truth is nobody cares that much about living, breathing people, especially the visitors, but the guards have a union and therefore a voice. Curiously they too spend time in lockup, and that’s what they have in common with their prisoners. Among these inmates are some angry, violent and dangerous people who need to be separated from society. There are also many who don’t fit that bill, but that’s another matter.
Visitor and inmate share a (apprx.) 4x8 heavy steel mesh cage, about six per row and there are three rows in total. They’re all joined together forming in aggregate one gigantic cage partitioned by steel mesh walls. There’s no privacy, guards patrol or just hang out constantly, and conversations from neighboring cages are easily overheard. Me, I’m too much in concentrated conversation with my friend to even hear what’s going on around me and I couldn’t care less anyway.
A wall of vending machines provides a background soundtrack while inmates await a break from the usual prison fare. It is a strange mixture of mundane life and society-sanctioned death. The oneness of opposites.
If the prisoner hasn’t arrived at the appointed cage he comes in from a separate entrance to the visiting room, accompanied by guards of course, and the makeshift cell is opened at the other end from the one the visitor went in. The inmate, his hands behind his back in steel handcuffs, stands at a narrow opening on that side of the cage, bringing his hands up to it and the cuffs are unlocked by a guard. You are then allowed one hug if you so want and you’ll be allowed one more on departure when visiting time is over. Visiting time is three hours max.
I’ve become increasingly claustrophobic over time. Airplanes freak me out and I’ve pretty much given up flying. I can overcome it in this situation because the cage lets in air, light and sound, and if I concentrate on the conversation at hand, I can pretty much drown out the surroundings and ignore the other cages and their inhabitants. We humans are nothing if not adaptable, otherwise why would anyone put up with steerage class air travel or commuter traffic day in and day out? We can even adapt to jail, some of us.
But the point of all this is not about what prisons look like or how they operate. The descriptions I’ve given you are more by way of setting the scene. This little account is about freedom and what that word has come to mean for me.
Prison not only confines the human body to a designated space, approximately an 8 x 10 cell, it also restricts practically all human activity except thinking. There is no freedom of choice, all decisions are made for the prisoner by the prison authorities: when and what to eat, when to sleep and get up, when to bathe, when to exercise, what to wear, with whom you can communicate and so on. Even when to die in some cases. Everything we take for granted in our everyday lives, no longer applies. Inside those drab cinderblock corridors life is regulated and regimented every hour of every day, week, month and year until you’re out, or dead.
That’s life in our prisons for the masses.
When you go to prison in this country you have abandoned your freedom of choice in every respect. Your life, for all intents and purposes no longer belongs to you. Your life belongs to the state and its representatives, the prison officials. Your life, defined by choices, the choices that govern almost every aspect of it is in the hands of others, and what you want or don’t want, what you need or don’t need, and how you want things to be or not is no longer up to you. In a sense you have been reduced to zero.
Leaving SQ after a visit I’m always struck by two things: What it means to be free, and the odd contrast of the beauty of the natural environment just beyond the prison walls. SQ is built along the coastal bay, practically right up to the water – a high, fortress-like tower dominates that point. Across the bay you can make out a housing development nestled into the coastal hillside, an upscale one I’d imagine, given its location. Anything along the San Francisco Bay is high-end property. One assumes any developer would sell his soul, or is that an oxymoron, to get his hands on the property on which San Quentin sits.
You walk out of the prison and take deep breaths of sea air as if to cleanse and revive yourself, and you heave a sigh of gratitude for the cries of the gulls. You feel the ocean’s breeze, sometimes a cold wind and invite the chill. You notice your own footsteps and feel your body as it carries you to your car and then…wherever you want to go. Any direction you choose and any destination you want. And you realize in that moment, that is freedom.
Freedom is not “just another word for nothing left to lose.” Freedom is not a word. It’s not a concept. It’s not a lyric in a song no matter how good that sounds. Freedom is something real and tangible. Freedom is the freedom of having choice. And don’t let anyone tell you different.
*Jarvis Jay Masters was wrongfully convicted of the crime of taking part in the plot to murder a prison guard in 1985 and became a victim of both a corrupt legal system and wholly incompetent legal representation. Despite a wrongful conviction and decades of imprisonment he has led a remarkable and highly productive life. His full life story can be accessed at: www.freejarvis.org.
A biography about Jarvis’ life and accomplishments, 'The Budhist on Death Row' four years in the making, written by noted author/journalist David Sheff, published by Simon & Schuster, will be out this year, 2020. www.davidsheff.com
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