Jarvis was born in 1962, in Long Beach, CA., one of his mother Cynthia's seven children. All of Cynthia's children were raised in foster care because she was addicted to drugs. Jarvis's father had left the family and later he too became an addict. Before the age of five Jarvis witnessed a great deal of violence and instability, of which he has written. (Read what Jarvis wrote) "Me and My Sisters" and "Scars"
in Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row.
In a series of foster placements, Jarvis was separated from his siblings. For several years, he stayed in his favorite home, with an elderly couple he loved, but when they became too old to care for him, he was moved again, at the age of nine. After that, Jarvis ran away from several foster homes, always returning to the elderly people's house. He was then sent to the county's large locked facility for dependent children, and later to some more group homes. Once, he stayed with an aunt for a while in a poverty-stricken public housing project, but he got into trouble. At twelve, he became a ward of the court because of delinquency, and was in and out of institutions after that. At his death penalty trial, several people who worked in such places testified that they recalled him as a smart and articulate youngster with a sense of humor and a lot of potential. But too many times, he was pushed and he went in the wrong direction.
At the age of seventeen, when he was a very angry young man, he was released from the California Youth Authority and went on a crime spree, holding up stores and restaurants until he was captured and sent to San Quentin. He never shot anyone, but he did threaten his victims with a gun. He has been in San Quentin since the age of nineteen.
Jarvis has written:
"Those who want to make sense of my life will see, through my writing, a human being who made mistakes. Maybe my writing will at least help them see me as someone who felt, loved, and cared, someone who wanted to know himself for who he was."