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David Sheff Charts Jarvis Jay Masters' Buddhist Journey In Prison In New Book

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jarvis Jay Masters is a convicted murderer and an admired practitioner and teacher of Buddhism who sits on death row. David Sheff has written a book that's not just about the crime of which Jarvis Jay Masters was convicted and strong doubts raised about the case but what amounts to the remaking of a man's soul in a forbidding place, "The Buddhist On Death Row: How One Man Found Light In The Darkest Place." And David Sheff, the author of previous bestsellers that include "Beautiful Boy," joins us from Inverness, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us again.

DAVID SHEFF: Oh, Scott, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: And we're also connected with Jarvis Jay Masters from death row in San Quentin. We should expect periodic automatic interruptions on the line. Mr. Masters, thank you for being with us.

JARVIS JAY MASTERS: No problem, no problem.

SIMON: Well, I understand you've just been sick with COVID, right?

MASTERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I've had it. And it's a terrible, terrible three weeks for me. But - and, yeah, I got sick - very sick. And it just was like in every other cell.

SIMON: David Sheff, of course we want to talk about your book and Mr. Masters' story, "The Buddhist On Death Row." What did you see in the Jarvis Jay Masters story?

SHEFF: Well, I'd heard about Jarvis from friends who were in the Buddhist community. And the two things that I kept hearing over and over was that this man, who was framed, shouldn't be on death row. And in spite of the fact that he was there and now it's been, you know, 30 years and 22 years in solitary confinement, he was one of the most extraordinary people that they'd met. His story was really about how a person changes and the remarkable transformation, because he was a person who could be as bitter, angry as anybody could be, and yet he was the opposite. He was this light in the lives of many, many people.

SIMON: Mr. Masters, we do want to talk about that spiritual journey, but I think you'll understand we don't want to lose the fact that you are on death row, whether you agree with the conviction or sentence or not, because you were convicted of assisting in the stabbing death of a prison guard named Dean Burchfield - right? - in 1985.

MASTERS: Yeah, absolutely. Later on that year, I was charged with two other guys, and we stood - end up standing trial in 19 - I think it was 1989, '90.

PRERECORDED VOICE: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

MASTERS: And we were all three convicted, and I was the only one who was sentenced to death. And since then, this is where I've been.

SIMON: How did you find Buddhism?

MASTERS: I got in trouble. You know, I got in a lot more trouble than I ever been in. It started off with me waiting for a death sentence. Actually, I was in the courtroom, and the jury was trying to determine whether I should be - they should put me to death or not. My investigator, Melody Ermachild, who's done so much to help my spiritual growth, she gave me this little pamphlet, and the pamphlet was called "Life In Relationship To Death" (ph). So I thought that was the best place I was right then - you know, my life in relationship to death. And I start getting visits from this Buddhist community I got involved with, and I was so blessed because I did.

SIMON: David Sheff, what kind of difference did these people make in each other's lives?

SHEFF: Well, when I started to hear about Jarvis, I heard people talk about how he had impacted their lives. And, you know, first, as a journalist, I was skeptical. You know, first of all, everybody in prison basically says that they're innocent. And then the second one, people talked about him as if he was this - I don't know - this enlightened being in San Quentin, the Buddhist on death row. And I began to do the research and talking to a lot of people, reading all the transcripts, reading boxes and boxes and boxes of material from the trials. And I became convinced that, you know, Jarvis is innocent.

But the other thing I was suspicious of, and it was this idea that he was, you know, a force for nonviolence, for peace in a place that is known to be, you know, the opposite. And so I started talking to people, and I got confirmation, corroboration with a lot of the most remarkable stories about the way Jarvis intervened, saved lives of people who were going to be killed.

This gay kid was going to be killed, and Jarvis intervened - and not at the yard (ph), but what he did was he went up to these guys, and they - he engaged them in a conversation and said, you know, that kid over there is - you know, he's like we are. I mean, he grew up in hell. He was tortured. He was vilified. And he's one of the sheep in here, and there are a lot of wolves in here, you know, who are going to prey on the sheep. And we are here to protect the sheep. And it was a way that sort of saved the kid's life, but it also was done in a way that was - it empowered these other guys and just began a shift themselves to really see themselves as a protector.

And even a guard told me a story about how he was having the worst experience of his life. He was actually suicidal. And Jarvis recognized that he was - something was wrong, and Jarvis engaged him. And over the course of months, he had midnight conversations with Jarvis standing outside of his cell, and it changed everything. It made him appreciate his family. It made him appreciate his life. It even made him appreciate his job to actually help people who were suffering.

SIMON: I struck by part of the book. David says you no longer equate happiness with freedom, getting out, but maybe you found a deeper kind of freedom even inside.

MASTERS: My life story, it was almost like you better find something. You know, you better find some measure of peace in here because this place will kill you. You know, it has that ability to do that very, very fast. And I'm not just talking about being stabbed or suicide. I'm talking about just the effects of criminal life (ph). You know, it wears you down. It beats you up. It does everything that to me is really not human.

PRERECORDED VOICE: This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

SIMON: You know, David Sheff, where does Jarvis' case stand? Case is appealed in federal court, yeah.

SHEFF: And there's a whole new team of lawyers who are working on this case now. And there are so many holes in the case that have not been able to be heard yet, and they will be heard this go-around, and that's why I'm optimistic.

SIMON: You know, a few minutes ago, I would've told you that I would never ask this question of someone on death row, but I feel - are you happy?

MASTERS: (Laughter) Oh, wow. I never thought I'd get a question like that.

PRERECORDED VOICE: You have 60 seconds remaining.

MASTERS: You know, yeah, I am happy. I'm happy for, you know, all the things that I can think of that makes my life, give my life some quality, give my life some joys, give my life, you know, some people to care for it. You know, you have to compare yourself to someone to say that. So compared to my environment, you know, compared to what people on these various tiers have in their lives, I am extremely blessed, you know? And I really mean that.

SIMON: Wow. Jarvis Jay Masters is on death row, San Quentin. The book by David Sheff - "The Buddhist On Death Row." Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

SHEFF: Oh, Scott, thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Good luck, Mr. Masters, wherever the journey goes.

MASTERS: And you and your viewers stay safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.