Life behind bars: Living in Eastern State Penitentiary

Marianne Caesar
Staff Writer

While students decide which series of horror attractions they will be attending, thoughts usually include whether or not they want to deal with people in scary clown masks or if they prefer walk through mazes to haunted hayrides. As discussed in last week’s issue of The Snapper, Eastern State Penitentiary is one of these attractions made available each October in Philadelphia. While I can understand the appeal of paying for people to jump out at you to provide an adrenaline rush, I cannot help but take some offense that this prison site is taken into consideration with such amusement that it nearly invalidates every real and serious experience which its prior residents held. One of these residents happens to be my great-uncle Joseph Augustus Baranowski.

Personal family photo of Joseph A. Baranowski.
Personal family photo of Joseph A. Baranowski.

When my uncle was 17, he and his friend chose to rob a grocery store, though his friend unexpectedly chose to take a hostage thus raising their charges to kidnapping. This action led to a prison sentence of 36 years on Fairmont Avenue, and a degradation to the inmate number series E2333 in his new dungaree prison wardrobe. He was released early on good behavior, but was unable to live feeling free within society again and resorted to robbing grocery store chains through Brinks trucks which would transport money within Colorado.

Food was compared to slop, according to Baranowski, residing within the Quaker-run prison. Despite this alternate faith being used as a control, he returned to his Jewish heritage to not only receive better treatment but to also obtain better food in regards to the holy holidays. It is within the prison’s synagogue that he was most at peace, and able to feel a sense of identity and community beyond an identification number.

Visits were only permitted once a month and lasted for thirty minutes, though an age minimum was not in place at the time for visitors. There were no phone calls granted to the inmates, nor were any packages permitted entry into the facility.

As a resident, my great-uncle witnessed murders in the showers, inmates thrown over the rails, leading to mesh grating later installed, and the premeditated removal of certain individuals such as pedophiles. On the other hand, there were also inmates who would collectively send their earnings to our family, helping pay for medical bills for my mother’s heart problems as a child.

The synagogue inside the Eastern State Penitentiary.
The synagogue inside the Eastern State Penitentiary.

During his travels after his initial release from Eastern State Penitentiary, Baranowski’s companion in the primary robberies turned him in, and he was sentenced an additional ten years in prison. He did not serve this time in full though, as he was clever enough to be acquitted to Fairview State Hospital by consuming banana peels to leave the prison environment and its dangers. After two years in the institution, he was released.

When my mother and I most recently visited the penitentiary, I could not help but feel the sadness emanating from the broken down halls showing where he and his fellow residents lived. If anything, I gained an immense appreciation for the freedom to walk in and out of the cells and the building itself. We could think without the threat of danger, and were never restricted to any area except the synagogue, which was being renovated at the time.

The conditions of flaking walls, and very little light add a large perspective to the life outside the walls, and I ask all students who creep stealthily to avoid costumed workers to appreciate the true horrors which once existed. I leave you with the words of my great-uncle Joseph, “Why would you go someplace that created such a painful experience in my life? It didn’t teach me anything good, but I learned how to be a hardened criminal.”