Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

From death row: a plea to care for our "invisible children"

By Barbara Abrams

I often recommend to my students a book entitled "Finding Freedom" by Jarvis Jay Masters, an inmate on San Quentin's death row.  This series of essays describes how Jarvis turned his back on violence by embracing Tibetan Buddhism with its practice of meditation, self-reflection and forgiveness.  His stories of how he implements his vow to do no harm and encourage peace are entertaining, heart-opening and at times, humorous.

In his courageous new book, "That Bird Has My Wings",  Jarvis describes how he came to incarceration, recounting an early childhood of filth, hunger and neglect that came to an abrupt halt when his heroin addict mother was brutally beaten as her young children cowered under the bed.  Social services placed Jarvis in a home with a retired couple, and he bloomed in their care, excelling academically, athletically and socially.  But after his foster mother fell ill, Jarvis spent the rest of his childhood in foster and youth homes and institutions so cruel and degrading that he preferred the lonely life of living in bus stations and on the streets of southern California.  Without the warm support and example of a loving family, it is not surprising that an apprenticeship in criminal behavior brought him to San Quentin as a teenager.

Though Jarvis never blames or complains, his book offers a window into one child's experience of poverty, addiction and violence and a profound indictment of the foster care system. He writes passionately as a warning to youth at risk to take another path and a plea to our society to love all our children.  Jarvis is a wonderful writer whose intelligence and concern for others shines through.  His stories of past and present provide a unique perspective and are truly inspiring.