Free at last

Bernard Baran talks about how he survived 21 years in prison and the gay community’s unwillingness to take up his fight

BERNARD BARAN, in a photo taken this week, after spending 21 years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit
Bernard Baran grew up without a father and without money in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a city of the working poor. In 1978, at the age of 13, he came out as gay. At 18, after dropping out of high school, receiving government employment training, and working a number of other stints, Baran landed a part-time job as a teacher’s aide in a child-care center. It was 1984, and the day-care child-abuse hysteria was just getting under way; Baran was accused of sexually molesting five children. Intense homophobia, lack of reasonable legal representation, the apparent desire on the part of some parents to sue the school, and what appears to have been coerced testimony from the children led to Baran’s speedy conviction: his trial took nine days and the jury deliberated for only three and a half hours. He was sentenced to three concurrent life terms in Walpole State Prison. He was 19 years old and weighed less than 100 pounds. In prison, he stustained brutal treatment, including rape and physical assault 30 to 40 times.

In 1989, Baran was transferred to Bridgewater Treatment Center, a safer but nonetheless difficult place committed to treating sex offenders. Once settled there, he continued to refuse confession to the crimes of which he was accused. Due to the Herculean efforts of Bob Chatelle and the Free Bernard Baran Committee, as well as attorney John Swomley, Baran was released on June 30, and is now free on bail awaiting a new trial. Michael Bronski and Catherine Tumber had the following conversation with him on July 5, at the Boston law offices of John Swomley.

CT: Congratualtions.
Thank you. Thank you very much.

MB: What have you been doing with your time?
Well, mostly just spending it with my family. My mom came down; she’s spending a couple of weeks with me. Getting to know Boston and the area, learning how to do the subway and the train and the buses …

MB: So does the world seem really different?
Things were odd to me, like I’d never seen the ocean. When we left this office, I wanted to enjoy that moment. So I stopped and let everybody go ahead of me, and I stood there and just looked at the boats and the water. I was only 19 and I was just working to have a little pocket money, so I never got to do a lot of stuff. A friend sent me the Massachusetts registry book to study [to get a driver’s license]. That’s another thing that’s changed a lot: there are more symbols now than there is writing [on signage]. It’s kind of a time warp. Um, bathrooms — automatic hand-washing things, you know.

MB: When you came out, what did you think of how people dress now?
Yeah, it was different. It isn’t as wild. (laughter) It’s more basic. Everybody got away from the loud, crazy colors that were going on in the ’80’s (more laughter).

CT: The Boy George look.
(laughter) Right.

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Related: Gagging Baran’s lawyers — for justice or politics?, Being gay in western Massachusetts, The trials of Bernard Baran, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Bridgewater Treatment Center, Bridgewater Treatment Center, Child Abuse,  More more >
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