Letter to the Editor: Jarvis Masters’ wrongful conviction sheds light on the unjust foster care-to-prison pipeline

Letter to the editor

Thirty-two years. By the time we are 32, we will have graduated from Occidental College, started our first job and made some career pivots. Many of us may have gone on to grad school, been married, started families or moved multiple times. So much will occur during the first three decades of our lives — we will have fully grown up, out of childhood into adulthood and have had the opportunity to create a meaningful life for ourselves.


For that same amount of time, Jarvis Jay Masters has been imprisoned in San Quentin State Prison due to a murder and conspiracy to commit murder conviction in his early twenties. For 32 years, Masters has endured the brutal prison system, robbed of the chance to build a life for himself outside the confines of San Quentin. Masters grew up in Long Beach, CA, and was shuffled from one abusive environment into the next — all this movement out of his control from the age of 9. He was first incarcerated for a series of armed robberies he committed as a teenager. 


Currently sitting on death row, Masters and his case shed light on the inequities within the foster care and prison systems while underscoring the clear link between the two. After many unsuccessful appeals, Masters’ case is now in front of a federal judge who said he would hand down a written ruling. His story is a case study in how society’s perceptions can impact the outcome of an individual’s future.


The term “foster care-to-prison pipeline” encapsulates the cycle of many foster care children ending up in the prison system, shifting from one overburdened and dehumanizing system to another. In 2016, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP) reported that one-quarter of foster children interact with the criminal justice system within two years of aging out of the program. In the California foster care system, there are more than 60,000 children — making up 13 percent of the nation’s foster care population.


On his website, Masters reflected on his experience in the foster care system and how it impacted his sense of self-worth: “I became a child I hated.” 


This past summer, I spent time developing the national Justice for Jarvis campaign as an intern at Abernathy MacGregor, a New York based strategic communications consulting firm. We worked to prove that biases in the criminal justice system put Masters at the center of the trial for the 1985 murder of a San Quentin prison guard. 


Our firm is convinced that Masters had been wrongfully accused of forging the murder weapon used in the stabbing. We believe that the court’s perception of him as a hardened criminal ultimately led to his conviction. Even though he was accused only of making the murder weapon, he received the harshest sentence: death penalty in 1990. Additionally, he has been in solitary confinement for 21 years. 


On his website, Masters reflected on his path in the court system from foster care to the death sentence: “I was a ward of the state, and they told me they wanted to protect me. And now I was in the same kind of room, with dim buzzing lights, and they were figuring out how to try and kill me.”


I urge you to listen to Dear Governor, a 22-episode podcast on Masters’ appeal, and decide for yourself if he belongs on death row. 


Since his conviction, Masters has become a Buddhist and written a book, “That Bird Has My Wings,” published by HarperCollins in 2009. His book made Oprah Winfrey’s book club, and she has become one of his advocates. 


I, and many others, believe that the criminal justice system disregarded the many inconsistencies and factual errors of this case because it had already typecast Masters as a man deserving of neglect and blame. The WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project has estimated that there have been 3,204 exonerations since 1989 and thousands of other innocents currently behind bars. There are countless tragic stories that mirror Masters’ experience solely because circumstance made someone an easy scapegoat.


By bringing visibility to Masters’ story, we can highlight how an individual can slip through the cracks within the foster system and end up facing severe prejudice once they are in a vulnerable position. While the foster care-to-prison pipeline will not be dismantled with one case, Masters’ case illuminates the systemic issues we face as a society on a broader scale. 


Occidental College is a unique place where we are encouraged to ask questions about societal problems, think critically about ways to solve them and apply what we learn in the classroom in order to serve a greater purpose. With a case so close to home, it is imperative that we remain informed and involved in bringing these systemic injustices to the forefront. The fight for Masters’ appeal has been 32 years in the making. His story illustrates multiple injustices faced not just by one man, but by all of those who have been wrongly incarcerated.


Justice for Jarvis is a movement that brings to light the intersection of many injustices faced by hundreds in our state and thousands in our nation who have fallen victim to the faults within our foster care, court and prison systems. I urge you to join The Campaign to Exonerate Jarvis Jay Masters. Learn more at freejarvis.org.

Contact Ashley Muranaka-Toolsie at amuranakatoo@oxy.edu.