2016-06-30
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.

Sometimes they leave the lights on twenty-four hours a day - to break men's minds. And they take all your personal belongings. They took everything I had off of death row.

One of the things I hated the most was being inside all the time and not being able to go outside in the fresh air very often. The ventilation system is horrible. My skin atrophied and I was usually either freezing cold or hot as hell, just sweltering in the summer.

Do the people who know and admit their guilt handle death row differently than people like you who know and proclaim their innocence?

It's tough, because it is different for every single person. I could sit and chronicle everything I endured in prison for you, but it would not give you the understanding of someone else's experience.

As long as we have a death penalty in this country, there will be a death row. How do you think death row ought to operate and how do you respond to some people's notion that we shouldn't do anything in the way of programming since the people on death row are going to die anyway?

It's a fallacy that all people on death row are going to die anyway. 60% of people on death row will have their sentences reduced to a lesser charge and they'll get off death row. It happens all the time.

So, if you put someone for 15, 16, 17 years in a box and treat them like an animal and poke them with a stick and then they get their sentence reduced, what do you think happens for the rest of the prison population when they get out into the general prison population? You've created this bitter, broken human being who is angry.

Or, you invest a little bit of dignity, a little bit of time, and some honest programming and you allow them to paint, you allow them to structure their mind, you allow them to grow. And you help them do it! You give them art supplies and books and other simple things so that they can find redeeming qualities within themselves.

The Quakers designed the prison for a purpose: so that you could put someone in a place where they'd have to face what they are, who they are, what they've done, and what they plan to do with their lives. And any redemption that comes out of that is what is supposed to be.

It was a good idea, but it didn't have a lot of goodness behind it, because it was done in solitary. And I don't think much good can come from keeping people isolated and alone for years or even months or weeks at a time - human beings were not meant to live that way.

If someone gave you a million dollars to develop and implement a program for people on death row, what would you do?

I would hire scholars to teach people and to help them structure their time each day so they could begin to structure their minds. I would have classes - teach people how to read, how to draw, how to understand themselves. Teach them languages, teach them things so they could think and be creative and not go crazy.

I have seen people literally go crazy from being in a cement box all day, day in and day out. The lack of programming for death row prisoners is the most deteriorating thing.

I think we need better programming for the staff too. They have high rates of suicide, divorce, disease. I think it's a really hard thing. I think there are some very good guards and staff who are really good people. And some guards start out good and try to do a good job, but they end up broken too.

You were released 28 days ago, and I've heard you call yourself 28 days old because of that. Do you have a sense that you have to "catch up"?

No. It's an amazing thing. I know if I started doing that, chasing everything all at once, it would drive me crazy. You can't catch the wind. You can run in it, be pushed by it, but you can't catch it. I am going to sit back, savor and enjoy and take things as they come.

What are your plans?

I'm going on a lecture circuit and use that as a way to help my family financially - they've lost almost everything trying to help me. I am hoping to get my book published. I want to use what happened to me and all the things that helped me to grow and then travel around and speak to people.

I hope that doing this article highlights how the Prison Society and its members and supporters are in a perfect position to help make changes for the people still on death row; that we have an obligation to use this opportunity to implement meaningful programming.

As long as we're forced to deal with the death penalty, we have to put humanity at the forefront in how we treat these men and women.

Right now, what do you want the world to know about Nick Yarris? What do you want to tell the world?

Despite everyone's expectations of bitterness and anger or the inability to let go of what happened to me, I am focusing on all the good things. I am a good man now and I want the world to know that people can be redeemed. People can change.

I also want to tell the world that I think we are fools if we believe we have the right to decide who should die by sentencing them to the death penalty. As soon as we deem ourselves worthy of deciding who should or who shouldn't die, we start losing part of ourselves that we really can't afford to lose.

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