It is not just the doors, but how guards and prisoners see and treat each other. The more this place becomes physically like a zoo, the less we relate to each other as humans. It makes you wonder what is the right response for a Buddhist. I am not here for just a six-month term, but at least until the end of my appeals. Does a practitioner tolerate anything that comes along, or make a principled stand for a human way of relating?
—Jarvis Masters, December 2002
This year, the Buddhist writer Jarvis Jay Masters faced a new challenge when he was closed behind a door that turned his cell into a silent, airless isolation chamber. Jarvis has lived in San Quentin’s maximum-security Adjustment Center for longer than any other prisoner. Because his death sentence is for conspiracy to murder a prison guard, Jarvis is not housed on the normal death row. Inmates who are being punished are sent to the “AC” for ninety days or so. Jarvis has lived in the AC for sixteen years.
Life in the AC is very restricted. AC prisoners are allowed out of their cells only three times a week, for three hours at a time, to exercise in a prison yard. They are not allowed phone calls, and they have no physical contact with their families or attorneys. AC prisoners see their visitors through a glass window while talking on a phone.
Jarvis has written eloquently about his life and meditation practice in his cell in the Adjustment Center. When he first arrived there, the cell had bars, which were later replaced by metal mesh with tiny holes. The mesh prevented anything being passed in or out, but it did let in air.
Jarvis often wrote about his chief source of pleasure—the fresh air that wafted in through the open windows in the wall opposite his cell. Even if the weather was cold or rainy, he loved to feel the changes in the air, and he breathed it in as if it were a taste of freedom.
In his stories, Jarvis recounted the conversations among the prisoners, who called back and forth, up and down the tier, day and night. Listening to the sounds of the AC, the comforting talk, the officers’ conversations, the arguments, the TV noise, the clanging gates, and the screams of anguish, Jarvis was a part of a community: a community of suffering souls locked up together, but a community. Even the silences the men shared had meaning.
Jarvis wrote in a letter dated January 28, 2002:
I woke up this morning to complete silence . . . such a contrast to yesterday when the football playoff games were on television and the noise inside the building was like a cheering stadium of its own. Now the very next day the absolute silence: the reason being the execution set for today, or at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow. . . . I plan to meditate into the night, and I know many others will be doing the same, so we’ll all be together.
In the summer of 2002, the warden announced that solid walls and doors would be installed on the cell fronts in the AC. Air would come into each six-by-ten-foot cell only through a vent. Prisoners would no longer be able to hear each other’s voices unless they screamed at the top of their lungs.
The doors were being installed because of a series of attacks on officers. Angry, out-of-control inmates had “gassed” some guards by throwing urine and/or feces on them through the mesh. As often happens in prison, every man in the AC was being punished for the violence of a few.
Jarvis reacted with fear to the prospect of the loss of fresh air and almost all his human contact. Even though he knew that most prisoners in California’s many new prisons live alone in closed cells—as do most children in juvenile hall—he dreaded the door closing on him.
Jarvis’s most precious possession is his sanity. He had heard for years about the mental illness induced by the super-isolation cells at Pelican Bay State Prison. The California courts have ruled that the isolation cells of Pelican Bay, Corcoran and other prisons are legal; prisoners can be kept in such conditions until a prison doctor certifies them insane, which rarely happens. Only then can they be moved out to the prison hospital until well enough to be returned to isolation. Cells at San Quentin, however, are much smaller, and their legality is being challenged in the courts. No other cells as small as those in San Quentin’s AC have solid doors.
Jarvis wondered if the doors were meant to drive some men in the AC crazy and others over the edge. The problem was not simply the lack of air or the doors themselves but the dehumanizing procedures that increasingly controlled life in the AC.
By August, Jarvis was moved out of his longtime cell on the top tier to a lower one while a construction crew started installing solid doors. On August 6, Jarvis wrote:
I woke up today with a serious headache. It could be caused by the fumes from the welding as they are placing the doors on. I don’t know if it’s actually the fumes or realizing the DOORS, and what they will entail to my daily existence once I’m behind one of them.
The new doors did have windows—a thick piece of Plexiglas that lets in light, but no air and little sound.
On September 3, as the construction proceeded, Jarvis wrote: “I feel a loss of traction while this place has every intention of burying me alive.”
By September 18, some prisoners were moved into cells with the new doors, while Jarvis waited his turn. Jarvis wrote: “All last night I could hear pounding and pounding. . . . Someone flipped out being placed behind the door. I knew if
I had problems with it, others would, too.”
On Labor Day, Jarvis was put back into his old now-closed-in cell. He experienced intense anxiety. “It’s like being in a cave!” he wrote. He told a visitor that one of his worst moments occurred when he saw a little brown bird that often came to perch on the open window opposite his cell. Before, when the bird came, it would “peep,” and he would look up. Behind the door, Jarvis was standing at his Plexiglas window when the bird came. Jarvis saw the bird’s beak open, but he could not hear any sound.
In another letter, Jarvis described the cell as “like being in your car with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner or the heat on.” Except, of course, Jarvis had no control over the temperature or fan.
Jarvis said that when he first tried meditating, it wasn’t much help. Moving around inside the cell seemed to work better. He forced himself to do long yoga sessions until he was tired. In the new silence, he wrote:
I noticed my constant thinking, even while watching TV. . . . I just get caught up. It’s only when I’m distracted by reading or writing or yoga that I seem to be at my best. The good thing is, the few people I’ve been able to speak to, friends here, say the same thing. We all have to fill our silence with things to do behind the door.
Jarvis told a visitor, “The one thing I do not want to hear from any Buddhists is about how lucky I am to be in prison because it’s such a perfect place to meditate. Usually, I’m polite to them, but right now, I hope nobody tells me that.”
Jarvis was grateful for his visits and his “airtime” on the yard. He said that when he was able to talk to other men in cells with the new doors, they could identify with each other because they were experiencing the same things. He had his years of meditation practice to draw upon. His self-knowledge helped. He wrote, “But for others here who can’t stand their own silence, this is flipping them out.”
Slowly, Jarvis’s anxiety subsided. By the end of September, he was able to write, “I’m getting all of my yard time, and I’m putting air in my pockets to bring back to my cell. The solitude, I kind of like. I just have to learn how to accept air from the vent. I can deal with it—I have no choice.”
Jarvis was one of the first group of men to go behind the doors. Construction continued, and in November an officer offered Jarvis the chance to move to a cell without a door until the construction was completed in the whole building. Smiling, Jarvis explained to a visitor, “I told him ‘No. I don’t want the door chasing me. I want to face it and deal with it, not wait for it to get me again.’ You know what I mean?”