Wrongfully convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, Nicholas James Yarris was condemned to death in 1982 at the age of 21. In 1988, he was the first death row prisoner in the United States to demand DNA testing to prove his innocence. Fifteen years later, Yarris successfully obtained the DNA results needed to prove his innocence. In January 2004, after spending spent twenty-two years in solitary confinement, Yarris walked out of prison a free man. Catherine Wise, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Pennsylvania Prison Society, talked with Nick about his ordeal.

How does one stay sane in that environment, under those circumstances, especially in your case where you were incarcerated for something you did not do?

The act of finding sanity in the house of insanity is humility. You have to let go of all the ego; it gets stripped away from you and then you try and resurrect something from whatever you find, whatever you have left. You have to try and find that one good thing inside yourself that is everything to you, and try and build on that.

On the more tangible side, I read books and taught myself things. I studied. I taught myself German and psychology. Learning about psychology really helped me understand myself and the others around me and it helped keep me sane.

What did you want to do when you first got out? What did you want to eat?

Pizza! Cheesesteaks! Are you kidding? I grew up in Philly! But seriously, I feel like God gave me brand new taste buds and said, "I've prepared this amazing feast for you. Go and enjoy it!" And I have.

A few nights ago, I stayed at a friend's house and I had an enormous mallow cup sundae with whipped cream and honey on top. I opened up both windows completely to the top and I laid under quilts and comforters in the freezing cold. It was quiet and I was alone and the moon was out and it was passing through the constellation of Orion in the sky and I was just laughing childishly with pure joy. It was amazing!

How long do you think it will be until you stop feeling this delight with life?

Never! That I've been given this wonderful gift, I'll never take for granted! Everyone seems to be rushing through their lives, wishing they had just two minutes to do all the things they want to get gone.

You are a bit twitchy.

That nervousness which you describe is sensory overload for everything! Here we are with this beautiful sunset and I don't think anyone in here has noticed it. I am living a dream right now. I used to dream about being able to sit at a table with another human being, have a normal conversation, and have a meal with normal cutlery, and have normal moments.

Are you angry?

No! I'm as happy as can be! I sat and ate ice cream and laughed at the moon! I'm joyously happy!

You can be angry and happy at the same time.

Why would I be angry when I have been given the most profound gift of my life? There is a man out there who prosecuted me. He's been constantly calling different lawyers, telling them how afraid of me his is. He's afraid I'll come after him now that I'm out, because of all the horrible things he did to me. The furthest thing from my mind I would ever do is waste a day being vindictive. His fear, I think, is his greatest sorrow and he can't escape that. I'm not going to do anything to him; he has to live with what he did.

Do you think that life on death row is worse than death itself?

One of the things I feared more than death was a life sentence. I couldn't imagine the horrors of watching everyone in my life die before I got out. I actually turned down a deal twice: once for life and once for less than life. I might have walked out of prison after 15 years. But then again, I wouldn't have been able to get the lawyers I did, because a lot of lawyers don't handle non-capital cases. In a way, I was lucky I guess to be on death row.

What are the worst things, the things people don't believe happen in prison?

They strip you bare - both literally and figuratively! Every single time you leave your cell, they make you strip. And you hand them your clothing, which they go through to make sure you have no weapons. They make you open your mouth. This is every time you leave your cell. Every day. This is for Level-5 inmates, not just death row inmates. Then, you are handed back your clothes and are hand cuffed and tethered to ankle cuffs. You're never allowed to touch anyone, hug anyone, and aren't even supposed to talk to anyone.

The sensory deprivation is the worst. Do you know I did not hug another human being for fourteen years? Just to feel someone hold my hand or touch my face would have been the most wondrous of gifts.

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