Home All Interesting Visitor from Philadelphia: Nick Yarris

Interesting Visitor from Philadelphia: Nick Yarris

written by Angus Skinner 30 April 2008

Angus Skinner, MAPP, works in his beloved and beautiful Scotland as an independent management consulting professional. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He has over 40 years experience of social work services across the UK. As Chief Social Work Inspector for Scotland for 15 years, Angus provided advice directly to ministers on all matters of social work service legislation, policy, and practice development. Full bio. Articles on Positive Psychology News by Angus are here.

I am amongst other things the Secretary of the Howard League in Scotland. John Howard was the 18th century founder of the penal reform movement: between 1775 and 1790 he toured Europe seeking humane forms of penal provision and promoting these in Britain. In 1921, under the guidance of Margery Fry, the Howard Association and the Penal Reform League were merged. There are now branches across the world.

Drummond HunterHoward League Scotland holds an annual lecture to honor the enduring influence of a friend and colleague of mine, Drummond Hunter, who died in 2002. Hunter and his wife Peggy had been Prisoners of War in the Far East at the end of which incarceration Drummond, who stood 6’ 4”, weighed less than 50 kgs. Hunter eschewed bitterness about his experience arguing that it would be corrosive internally. Forgiveness lay at the heart of his response. And understanding. (For more about forgiveness, see another PositivePsychologyNews.com article, The Miracle and Irony of Forgiving by Doug Turner).

By background a lawyer, Hunter became an inspirational policy commentator on health, penal policy, and many other matters. He was also a hugely effective health service planner and administrator. With great humanity, Hunter expected a lot of government, and got into trouble sometimes when he would not easily accept government failings. He argued that violence, crime, and penal policy should essentially be a part of public health.

Nick Yarris

In looking for this year’s Drummond Hunter Lecture, we found Nick Yarris. Nick Yarris spent 23 years in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania. Acquitted, he now lives with his wife and young children in the UK and campaigns world-wide for penal reform (including of course abolition of the death penalty). He has an articulate and passionate ability to reach audiences of all sorts and sizes and has crystallized the lessons from his experience for governments, businesses, and the academic world, to change. And like Drummond, he shows astonishingly little bitterness. Yarris writes on his website (full story here):

Nick Yarris

Nick Yarris

On Dec. 20th,1981 I was stopped in the city of Chester, PA. for a traffic citation by patrolman Benjamin Wright… [who] grabb[ed] me by the arm and a scuffle then ensued as he attempted to overpower a terrified 20 year old man that I was at the time. … Just a few days before Christmas 1981 and I wind up being charged with attempted murder and kidnapping of a police officer. Although it would take a Jury less than an hour of deliberation to clear me of all charges, the damage had already been done. …

…I made the mistake of trying to con the authorities into letting me out of solitary and then hopefully out of prison on bail so I could run, I made up a lie and blamed a dead rival for the murder I read about in the news paper I had in the cell with me, hoping the police would believe me. It failed miserably as the dead rival turned up very much alive and with proof of his alibi, the authorities then decided I knew so much that I must be the killer.

Yarris has lectured to the Law Faculty, but never in the Psychology School. Much of what Yarris had to say fitted brilliantly with positive psychology. The damage done by rampant individualism, the erosion of confidence by many aspects of the ‘self-esteem’ craze. What I was struck by most of all is how both these figures (Hunter and Yarris) testify in their lives as in their arguments that at core, humans are more likely to be essentially good rather than bad. And this belief is of course fundamental to Martin Seligman’s argument in Authentic Happiness and other writings, and to George Vaillant’s argument in his Spiritual Evolution.

Perhaps, it would be great if future positive psychologists heard directly from Yarris. He would be delighted to travel back to Philadelphia and other places to say hello.



Seligman, M. E. P. (2002), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love. New York: Broadway Press.

Images: Drummond Hunter, Nick Yarris.

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