Over the last 2 years, I’ve been in correspondence with a man who was sentenced to death for a crime he committed in 1986. In the 30 years he has been incarcerated, JT has developed a peacefulness that is noticeable to people around him. Thirty years in a very restrictive environment, with no chance he’ll be released, might have led to resentment and despair, and JT has certainly been through very difficult times. He has also become a man with a contagious humor, and I’ve found him to be light-hearted and compassionate.
JT is a Buddhist who credits his peace to his Buddhist practices including meditation and Buddhist chanting.
Although we have kept his identity private, we assure you he is a real person, and like Jarvis Masters on death row in San Quentin, California, we hope JT’s life as a prison monk will be an inspiration to many others who are facing extreme life circumstances. You are not alone. Others have travelled through tragedy with grace and dignity.
JT has found peace and joy. You can, too.
I first met Bo and Sita when they came to speak on death row in the mid nineties. I came from a diverse religious background. My grandmother was Jewish, my Aunt was Catholic, and my mother was Protestant Christian. To me, the Jesus story was about Service, and I was always attracted to that.
When I was working in a shoe store, a customer invited me to a Buddhist Center. I fell in love with chanting, and I practiced at the Buddhist Center every morning for several years. But then I got very busy holding a family together, and I got into cocaine, stress, and more cocaine. I was living a dual life, hiding the drug use and hiding that I was bisexual, and I stopped practicing for two years. That’s when I committed the crime that sent me here. It’s pretty obvious in retrospect: when you live with secrets you make bad choices.
In 2006, I was given my execution date. The warden called me down to his office on a Friday. He threw the letter on the desk and casually says “there’s your death notice.” I looked up angrily and thought “that’s the best way you can tell me?” But then I realized he was scared. I looked up and saw this man’s troubles and was really feeling for him, and that diminished my anger. It was obvious that he didn’t want to do this any more than I wanted to receive it. That was probably the biggest growth I had in an instant!
They stopped executions a week before I was supposed to go, and it actually took me years to accept that they weren’t going to come and get me and execute me right away. I don’t really think about whether the suffering I’ve caused can be purified in any way. I just feel that it’s one of those things that shouldn’t be spoken of. I do my spiritual work all the time. I think about my victim—in my mind she is linked to my daughter who was born after I got locked up. I try to live in service. In that way I try to honor my victim. I have to do better, and I can’t be in the business of talking about whether I’ve made any spiritual progress.
I can’t change the whole world but I can make the world a better place for the person next to me.