The Case of Jarvis Jay Masters On ‘Dear Governor'

In 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom issued a halt on death sentences during his term in office, citing a National Academy of Sciences report that found that one in every 25 prisoners on Death Row is innocent. “I cannot sign off on executing hundreds and hundreds of human beings, knowing – knowing – that among them there will be innocent human beings,” he said. One of the people whose execution has been stayed by this decision is Jarvis Jay Masters, who entered San Quentin Prison at the age of 19 for armed robbery. But after the murder of prison guard Sergeant Howell Burchfield, Jarvis was found guilty of conspiracy to murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Jarvis, however, maintains his innocence, and believes that when his appeal is heard he will be exonerated. With her podcast, Dear Governor, host and producer Corny Koehl wants us to get to know Jarvis, in the hopes that his story will help us rethink our stance toward capital punishment. “You will be a better person for knowing him,” Corny says.

Jarvis was taken from his mother at four years old because of his abusive father; he spent the rest of his childhood in and out of foster homes. After his death sentence, he became a Buddhist, wrote books about his life, mentored people outside of prison, and inspired plays, stories, and now this podcast with his eloquence and grace in unimaginably painful circumstances. With so many reasons to be angry, withdrawn, and hopeless, Jarvis has managed to use his situation to inspire and uplift others. His story and many like his, as well as movies like Just Mercy and Trial By Fire, have helped create a seismic shift in public opinion toward the death penalty. 

He also has a unique perspective of the coronavirus pandemic. Infection rates are disproportionately high in prisons; social distancing and frequent sanitizing are nearly impossible to implement, and there’s little to no testing. Jarvis says that when someone feels sick in San Quentin, they aren’t taken to the hospital or given medical treatment; they’re simply put in solitary confinement. It’s not a great incentive to be honest about feeling unwell, he points out: “I’m not going to be put in isolated confinement where I can't use the phone, I can’t inform my family what’s going on.” He also worries about prisoners with mental health issues, saying their fear and anxiety is at an all-time high. “It can only get worse,” he says. “They’re just….doomed.” Get to know Jarvis Jay Masters and the case against capital punishment on the Dear Governor podcast.

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